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Ed Driscoll

The Dazzling Abstractions Of Totalitarianism, Then And Now

February 23rd, 2010 - 1:40 am

Back in November, Anthony Daniels (perhaps better known by his frequent pen name, Theodore Dalrymple) tried to explain why so many intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s could look the horrors of the still-nascent Soviet Union in the face, and still think they were witnessing a great accomplishment in the making. In the New Criterion, Daniels wrote:

In a desultory kind of way, I have collected, over the years, many books about the Soviet Union published in Britain, France, and America during the 1920s and 1930s. They are not by any means overwhelmingly pro-Soviet, with titles such as Soviet Russia Fights Crime, The Protection of Women and Children in the Soviet Union, and Soviet Russia Fights Neurosis (in which, published at the height of the famine, are found the immortal words, “The greatest and most far-reaching values of the Soviet dictatorship are psychological and spiritual”); on the contrary, many of these books give the most compelling evidence of all the horrors of the Soviet Union, all of them now attested and accepted as being true.

My little collection has led me to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was valued by contemporary intellectuals not for the omelette, but for the broken eggs. They thought that if nothing great could be built without sacrifice, then so great a sacrifice must be building something great. The Soviets had the courage of their abstractions, which are often so much more important to intellectuals than living, breathing human beings.

Perhaps that’s why, as Max Boot writes on Commentary’s Contentions blog, there has been so many “Ridiculous Writings on Totalitarian Countries:”

I don’t know why, but I am still amazed by the credulity of some reporters. In researching my history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism (tentatively titled Invisible Armies), I have been running across some startling quotes from Western journalists who visited Communist-held areas of China in the 1930s and ‘40s. Sample:

The Chinese Communists are not Communists — not according to the Russian definition of the term. They do not, at the present time, either advocate or practice Communism…. Today the  Chinese Communists are no more Communistic than we Americans are.

That’s from the 1945 book, Report from Red China, written by the photojournalist Harrison Forman. He took seriously Mao Zedong’s statements to him that “we are not striving for the social and political Communism of Soviet Russia. Rather, we prefer to think of what we are doing as something that Lincoln fought for in your Civil War: the liberation of slaves. In China today, we have many millions of slaves, shackled by feudalism.” He also reported uncritically about Mao’s vow that the Communists would not establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and would instead set up a “democratic government” that would include “landlords, merchants, capitalists, and petit bourgeois as well as peasants and workers.” Apparently, Forman was unaware of the bloody campaigns the Communists had already carried out against “landlords” and “rich peasants.” Forman couldn’t understand why Mao didn’t change the party’s name to “Neo-Democracy” or “Democraticism” or “some such” name! (Mao’s canny non-reply: “If we were to change suddenly to some other name, there are those in China today — and abroad, too — who would make capital out of it, would accuse us of trying to cover up something.”)

And then, of course, there was the infamous Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China (1938) introduced Mao & Co. to much of the world — including to much of China.  Snow actually thought Mao, who would become arguably history’s worst mass-murder, was “a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.”

This is hardly an isolated phenomenon, given how many boosters Stalin and Castro, Ho Chi Minh and even Pol Pot had among the Western press corps. The tradition continues today with some prominent writers (like Roger Cohen of the New York Times) offering apologetics on behalf of Iran, while his colleague, Tom Friedman, exalts China’s current lack of democracy. Someday, I trust their writings will be as ridiculed as Forman’s and Snow’s deserve to be.

Which dovetails nicely into Jonah Goldberg’s latest column in the L.A. Times:

Friedman has gone so far as to wish America could be “China for a day” and to suggest that its “enlightened” regime is preferable to our own. It’s not that Friedman wants to abolish democracy, jail dissidents or force abortions. He’s more like a drunk looking for his car keys where the light is good. He sees a nation doing things he thinks America should be doing, but doesn’t look for what he doesn’t want to see: the pollution, the cruelty, the lies and basic evil that are just as central to China’s methods as its “enlightened” investments in this or that.

What unites all of these people is a form of power worship. These foreign governments and their experts have control over citizens and economics — sometimes through democratic consent, sometimes not — that the state doesn’t have in America. Thus proving American backwardness.

But the track record of such control, over the long haul, is abysmal, particularly in comparison to America’s more unplanned approach (indeed, the world’s planned economies often feed off American innovation to survive). The Soviets are in the dustbin of history; Japan Inc. is in its second “lost decade”; Europe is in an economic crisis; China’s problems are hard to see because Beijing likes it that way. We have our own problems, but history shows the solution to them is not to be found in more centralized planning.

Politicians and planners have a tendency to lock into their idea of what works, long after it doesn’t work anymore. If our government had China-like power in the 1970s, we would have banned natural gas. If it had such powers in the 1830s, we would have stuck with canals long after railroads were viable.

The future can’t be found on a junket, and it never works until you get there.

But then, from Walter Duranty to Pinch Sulzberger, Thomas Friedman and Frank Rich, the Times has a long history of being dazzled by the abstractions of totalitarianism, and thus being blinded from the workaday world of actually reporting the news.

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