Geoffrey M. Hodgson
The world is full of injustice and poverty, while the rich protect their wealth by manipulating the system of power. Consequently, many of the informed and intelligent are lured like moths to the lights of socialist revolution, promising social justice for the many not the few.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a blazing light in Russia a century ago. Many intellectuals were attracted to his Soviet regime. Lenin is said to have coined the term “useful idiot” to describe the naïve among them (but no evidence has been found to support that attribution).
But in 1913 Lenin definitely did quote the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This was unwittingly self-referential and rather prophetic. Lenin’s post-1917 Bolshevik regime became a hell, in part of his own making. The good-intentioned (with sufficient means or influence) were invited from abroad to visit the young Soviet Republic.
Venezuela – “another world is possible”
But first let us consider the current case of Venezuela. Its experiment in radical socialism began in 1998 when Marxist Hugo Chávez was elected as President. Using the plentiful oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.
Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. He whipped up popular support against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States. But constitutional checks and balances slowed down his radical reforms. Criticism from the private press and political opposition countered the populist movement.
So in 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power.
The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.
In 2002 Chávez was briefly deposed in a coup, which probably had support from the CIA. But Chávez was restored to power by the army and popular mobilisations.
Chávez then seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.
Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. His supporters were persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the “socialist revolution” against its enemies. Since 2004, “defamation” of the government, including “disrespect for the authorities”, has been a criminal offence.
Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The state-centred economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse.
Venezuela’s descent into hell
In a state-run economy, business corruption is encouraged by bureaucratic failure. Political corruption is facilitated by the gathering of powers in the hands of the ruling party and the state machine. The Venezuelan government became one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged.
“There’s no food”
Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.
In 2015 and 2016, blaming internal “fascists” and US intervention for the severe shortages, President Maduro declared two states of emergency. These gave him powers to intervene in the economy. Arbitrary detentions of dissidents became more common.
The regimes of Chávez and Maduro wasted and misspent much of the money made in the oil boom, while over-extending the powers of their corrupt governments. The private sector was hobbled. The ultimate outcome of Venezuela’s experiment with populist socialism has been authoritarianism, destitution and starvation.
Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward dictatorship. Press freedom is limited and critical journalists and opposition leaders are jailed.
Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse, and will probably continue to do so.
But the major cause of economic stagnation in Cuba and Venezuela is the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.
Los idiotas útiles
Back in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn attended a 2013 vigil following the death of Chávez, hailing him as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neo-liberal economics in Europe”. As late as 2015, when Venezuela was in ever-deepening crisis, Corbyn’s enthusiasm for the regime was undiminished. He remarked:
“we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.”
Corbyn has since been challenged to come out against the hellish Maduro regime. Maduro’s government has been accused of arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings and torture.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
Having managed to dupe many people with the mantra that he was a “peacemaker” in Northern Ireland (rather than a supporter of the IRA), Corbyn tried the same trick with Venezuela.
First he removed all mention of “Venezuela” from his website. Then, in an August 2017 interview, he condemned the “violence done by all sides”.
The Venezuelan opposition includes both rightist agitators and defenders of human rights. By simply condemning violence, Corbyn appeared as morally neutral between the regime and its diverse opponents. He ignored the politico-economic conditions that had given rise to the violence, and the previous actions of the Chavistas in creating them.
I wonder if Corbyn could be taken back in a time machine to the 1793-94 Terror of the French Revolution, or the Soviet Great Terror of the 1930s, or the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, and be asked to condemn with detached neutrality the “violence done by all sides”.
In the same interview Corbyn called for respect for “the independence of the judiciary and … the human rights of all”. He failed to note that Chávez and Maduro were primarily responsible for undermining both.
Questioned about his support for Maduro, Corbyn fudged:
“I gave the support of many people around the world for the principle of a government that was dedicated towards reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people.”
He omitted to mention that that same socialist Venezuelan government was now responsible for widespread starvation, rampant corruption and mass emigration.
But Jeremy of Islington is in search of socialist sainthood. He does not want the blood of any regime on his hands. He wants to go down as a peacemaker. He left it to his Corbynista Praetorian Guard to make a more forceful case for the Chávez-Maduro regime.
Over to the Corbynistas
Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted on 11 August 2017 that the violence in Venezuela is “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy, not saving it”. Unlike Corbyn, this blamed all the violence on the opposition. It also overlooked the fact that Chávez and Maduro had been more effective in undermining democracy in Venezuela than anyone else.
Chris Williamson MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP
On the following day, Williamson Tweeted: “The US and global corporations are indulging in economic sabotage in Venezuela to bring down the government”. To a degree this may be true. But the statement ignores the greater part played by Chavista populism and its power-grabbing statist socialism in bringing about the economic and political catastrophe.
Other pro-Chavista idiotas útiles include Alexis Tsipras the Greek Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon the leftist French presidential candidate, Pope Francis and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.
The erosion of civil liberties and human rights has its roots in the concentration of economic and political powers in the hands of the state, whatever the “good intentions” that originally motivated the leaders and their supporters.
Stalin the Fabian and the Stalinist Fabians
Sadly, this is an old pattern. The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union in 1931 and met Joseph Stalin. Shaw declared that Russia was becoming “a Fabian society”. This was at a time of mass famine and forced collectivisation.
George Bernard Shaw
In the preface to his 1933 play On the Rocks, Shaw defended the Russian secret police’s “liquidation” of detainees who could not give satisfactory answers to queries about “pulling your weight in the social boat” or “giving more trouble than you are worth” or had not “earned the privilege of living in a civilized community”.
In a letter published in the Manchester Guardian in 1933, Shaw and others dismissed reports of famine in the Soviet Union as “slander” resulting from a “lie campaign” against the “Workers Republic of Russia”. In fact, from 1932 to 1933, about six to eight million people died there from hunger.
Shaw subsequently attempted to justify the extermination of the Russian peasantry: “For a Communist Utopia we need a population of Utopians. Peasants will not do.” In 1936 Shaw defended Stalin’s purges and mass executions. In 1948 he declared that Stalin was “a first rate Fabian”.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were highly influential intellectuals in the British Labour Party. In 1932 they made a three-week visit to the Soviet Union. Their generally favourable impressions were reported in 1935 in their massive two-volume study, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? In the 1937 edition the question mark was removed from the title.
Their assessments of the Soviet Union were more cautious than those of Shaw, but they also denied the existence of a famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933 and they opined that the liquidation of rich peasants (kulaks) may have been necessary to collectivize agriculture and increase its productivity. Their book received favourable reviews from left writers and it played a role in nurturing sympathy in the Labour Party for the Soviet Union, at least until the onset of the Cold War in 1948.
“Humane” Mao and the “Korean miracle”
Communism achieved another victory when Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949. Professor Joan Robinson was a leading Cambridge economist, influenced by both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. An enthusiastic supporter of Mao, she visited China several times.
Despite this first-hand experience, she failed to acknowledge that Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 had been an economic disaster: it had led to catastrophic famine and about 40 million deaths. In defiance she wrote: “the Great Leap [Forward] was not a failure after all, but the Rightists were reluctant to admit it.”
In the 1960s Robinson lauded the Cultural Revolution, approving of attempts by Mao and the Red Guards to root out “capitalist roaders” within Chinese society. She praised Mao’s “moderate and humane” intentions. In fact, the Cultural Revolution led to at least half a million and perhaps as many as two million deaths.
Violent struggles ensued across the country and paralyzed the economy for years. Many more millions of people were persecuted at whim by the Red Guards: they suffered public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture or execution. Countless more died when the army tried to re-establish order. In China’s totalitarian system they had no refuge or legal protection.
As late as 1973 Robinson opposed “market socialism” and advocated a centrally-planned economy. She wrote of the “success of the Chinese economy in reducing the appeal of the money motive”. After extolling the virtues of Mao’s system, she reported that “Chinese patriotism and socialist ideology are pulling together”.
But a few years later, shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country overturned the anti-market policies that Robinson had celebrated in her writings. After accepting markets, Chinese growth took off.
In 1964 Robinson visited Communist North Korea and extolled the “Korean miracle” in its economy. She attributed its claimed success to public ownership and central planning.
But, within fifteen years, capitalist South Korea was surging ahead of its Northern neighbour. By the 1990s North Korea was experiencing mass famines. By 2010, GDP per capita in the South was about 17 times greater than in the North.
The “human face” of Soviet Communism
E P Thompson
The historian Edward P. Thompson left the British Communist Party after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and subsequently played a major part in the formation of the New Left Review. But as late as 1973 he had sufficient residual sentimentalism for the Soviet Union to write of the
“times when [Soviet] communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s, and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946.”
Leszek Kolakowski’s response to these rose-tinted words was devastating. He asked what Thompson might have meant by the “human face” of the Soviet Union during these years. Did it mean the “attempt to rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger with uncountable victims, in several hundred peasants” revolts, all drowned in blood”?
“Or do you mean the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments …? Or do you mean the dispersion by soldiers of the only democratically elected Parliament in Russian history …? The suppression by violence of all political parties, including socialist ones, the abolition of the non-Bolshevik press and, above all, the replacement of law with the absolute power of the party and its police in killing, torturing and imprisoning anybody they wanted? … And what is the most human face in 1942-46? Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims … ? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies?”
Kolakowski searched for an explanation of Thompson’s incredible description of these events as “a most human face” of Communism. Perhaps this phrase is being used “in a very Thompsonian sense which I do not grasp”? A commentator on Kolakowski’s response wrote: “no one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”
Another “distortion”: the killing fields of Cambodia
Robinson and Thompson were not the only top-rank academics to be deluded by ideology. Consider the most important linguist of the twentieth century. Noam Chomsky loathed the American war in Vietnam. For him, to hide its own acts of oppression and mass murder, the West had duped the masses with its slick corporate propaganda. The West was fascism, with a fake mask of democracy.
But when reports emerged that the Communists were also capable of mass atrocities, he suspected an American conspiracy to exaggerate and to draw attention away from their own crimes. Then the evidence emerged of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979. Chomsky accused the publishers of the evidence of “extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions”.
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields
We now know that the Khmer Rouge obliterated about two million people – a quarter of the Cambodian population – in the pursuit of their Communist utopia. Chomsky’s reputation as a political thinker has never recovered.
Conclusion: what can we learn?
The first lesson is that thousands of highly intelligent people can be political idiots. We know that unintelligent people can be idiots (and even become presidents) but the task at hand is to explain intelligent idiocy. All it takes is a good dose of utopian idealism, combined with the view that the existing system is beyond reform.
Then when the likes of Lenin, or Mao, or Kim Il-sung, or Castro, or Pol Pot, or Chávez raise the red flag, the utopian intellectual flies to the light. A dose of reality may burn the wings. But the light of intellectual hope is so important that it must remained undimmed. Consequently, events as big as famines are based on the dark capitalist forces outside, or their devious agents within.
Many intellectuals are not practical people. They have lingered in their ivory towers. They know little of running organizations or state bureaucracies. Because of their well-motivated discontent and their search for hope, they can be attracted to Corbynism and other versions of leftist populism. But those lights are dangerous. They are ignited by opposition: without practical experience or feasible solutions.
Given such centralized powers, even well-motivated leaders will be tempted to curtail dissent and bully minority interests, in the name of the many against the few. Once on this slippery slope, human rights are eroded and the politico-economic system slides toward totalitarianism.
A lesson of the twentieth century is that classical socialism is a dead end. Viable democracies survive because there are countervailing, political and economic powers, which themselves depend upon mixed economies with large private sectors. Classical socialism unavoidably undermines the politico-economic foundations of democracy.
Instead we need to look to ways to making capitalism more egalitarian and inclusive, rather than chasing the dangerous dream of its abolition. Intelligent dreamers need to use their intelligence more wisely.
14 August 2017
Minor edits – 16, 20 August 2017, 27 September, 13 December 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Barsky, Robert F. (1997) Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
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Robinson, Joan (1969) The Cultural Revolution in China (Harmondsworth: Penguin). See pp. 19, 35-36.
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Staples-Butler, Jack (2017) “Starvation and Silence: The British Left and Moral Accountability for Venezuela”, 7 July. https://historyjack.com/2017/07/07/starvation-and-silence-british-left-and-venezuela/
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Thompson, Edward P. (1973) ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, Socialist Register 10. See p. 77, emphasis added. Accessible on http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5351#.VXBrZLFwYy8.
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