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An intriguing remark by the musician Shostakovich about life under Stalin, and why so many mediocrities rose to cultural prominence under the Soviets:
“Fiction triumphed because a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say, ‘From this day you will be a genius cog,’ and everyone else will consider it a genius. It doesn’t matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader.”
Reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey’s strategy of promoting non-entities like Peter Keating and Lois Cook. The me-too mentality of those who want to be in the club — certain journalists, critics, socialites — will join the chorus in celebrating the new artistic “genius.” Thus a self-reinforcing culture of the middling is born.
Meanwhile, those with real talent are marginalized, the newly-anointed “geniuses” know to whom they are indebted for their celebrity, the hangers-on obsequiously play along, and the cultural leader consolidates his power. Ruling a herd of mediocrities is much easier than ruling independent individuals.
 Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, pp. 211-212.
The photos, via Wikipedia, show Stalin with a group of followers, one of whom was disappeared, both from life by execution and from the historical record by photographic manipulation. What the leader giveth, the leader can taketh away.
Posted 2 days, 10 hours ago at 7:55 am. 2 comments
Robert Lawson (Southern Methodist University), along with James Gwartney (Florida State University) and Joshua Hall (West Virginia University), is editor of the celebrated Economic Freedom of the World Index. The Index is one of the major achievements in social science research this generation, made possible by much better data and awesome computing power.
Professor Lawson spoke recently at Rockford University on the methodology, results, and policy implications of the Index. What country rates highest? How much has the USA declined in the last decade? Which countries are at the bottom of the list and why? Where do the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) stand? How does economic freedom correlate with democracy, human rights, and peaceful relations between nations? My follow-up 17-minute audio interview with him is here:
Or one can listen at YouTube.
Posted 4 weeks ago at 8:53 am. 2 comments
In 1974, the great Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) published “My Correct Views on Everything, A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s ‘Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’”. Kolakowski is best known for Main Currents of Marxism, his huge survey of Marxism from its neo-Platonic and Hegelian roots through Marx and his immediate followers to the post-Russian-Revolution Marxist theoreticians.
Thompson (1924–1993) was a British historian and communist activist. His long letter had been published the year before and was critical of Kolakowski’s breaking from communism and his criticisms of Marxist theory and practice. “I must and will chide you,” Thompson wrote, “for hasty despair and for bad political judgment” (p. 80).
The despair began in 1956, which was devastating to the Old Left. Khrushchev publicly acknowledged the crimes of Stalin, and the Soviets brutally suppressed dissent in Hungary. Those two major events caused many splits in what had been a relatively unified Left movement.
As for the bad political judgment, Thompson remained a true-believer and, with some revisions to communist doctrine, became a leading figure in Britain’s New Left. Kolakowski was a rare intellectual who both broke with the far Left and explicitly accepted responsibility for his errors and complicity in evil. As he put it early in his response to Thompson:
“You and I, we were both active in our respective Communist Parties in the 40s and 50s which means that, whatever our noble intentions and our charming ignorance (or refusal to get rid
of ignorance) were, we supported, within our modest means, a regime based on mass slave labour and police terror of the worst kind in human history” (p. 2).
And then at great length Kolakowski proceeded to identify a wide variety of disingenuous-to-outright-dishonest tactics Thompson and his fellow-travelers used in defending themselves and attacking their enemies.
One example: In his letter, Thompson was dismissive of the significance of the half-century of the Soviet Union’s history to date — claiming that “to a historian, fifty years is too short a time in which to judge a new social system, if such a system is arising” (p. 70).
Kolakowski called him on it, pointing out both a double standard and, more disturbingly, a lack of any concern for the actual humans who lived under the Soviets. After telling us briefly of two individuals, Marchenko and a Lithuanian student, whose lives were destroyed by the communists, Kolakowski asked:
“And so, what is fifty years to a historian? Fifty years covering the life of an obscure Russian worker Marchenko or of a still more obscure Lithuanian student who has not even written a book? Let us not hurry with judging a ‘new social system.’ Certainly I could ask you how many years you needed to assess the merits of the new military regime in Chile or in Greece, but I know your answer: no analogy, Chile and Greece remain within capitalism (factories are privately owned) while Russia started a new ‘alternative society’ (factories are state owned and so is land and so are all its inhabitants). As genuine historians we can wait for another century and keep our slightly melancholic but cautiously optimistic historical wisdom” (p. 3).
The Thompson-Kolakowski conflict is an instructive example of a true-believer-apologist in conflict with an intellectually-honest thinker. While Thompson and Kolakowski were men of the Left, it’s important to note that the same psychological dichotomy runs through most intellectual movements. It’s the difference between those whose first loyalty is to a belief system and who will ignore or bend the facts to maintain their belief — and those whose first loyalty is to reality and who will alter or abandon their belief system to fit the facts.
Edward Thompson, “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski” (1973). Socialist Register.
Leszek Kolakowski, “My Correct Views on Everything, A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s ‘Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’” (1974). Socialist Register.
Thanks to Rafe Champion for sending me the Kolakowski link.
Eric Hobsbawm is dead.
Marxists and violence.
On the New Left turn to violence: “The Crisis of Socialism” [pdf], Chapter 5 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.
Posted 1 month ago at 10:27 am. 5 comments
In October 1980, David Horowitz wrote to his former mentor, Belgian-British leftist Ralph Miliband. A decade earlier, Horowitz had broken with the Left, both Old and New, becoming an apostate and, naturally enough, a non-person to his former comrades. As Horowitz put it in his letter:
“How could it be otherwise for people like us, for whom politics (despite our claim to be social realists) was less a matter of practical decisions than moral choices? We were partisans of a cause that confirmed our humanity, even as it denied humanity to those who opposed us. To leave such ranks was not a simple matter, like abandoning a misconception or admitting a mistake. It was more like accusing one’s comrades. Like condemning a life.”
In his fascinating letter, Horowitz paints a compelling story of the vision and social dynamic that has driven Left thought since the late 1700s.
I quoted Miliband in Chapter 5 of Explaining Postmodernism as a good representative of the strain of Left thinking that — after the 1950s disillusionment with classical Marxism and the Soviet Union — revised Left thought away from universalist assumptions about human nature and cognition and towards race/gender/ethnic identity assumptions. Here is Miliband:
“Marx and later Marxists [were] far too optimistic in relying on the class location of wage earners to produce a ‘class consciousness’ that would obliterate all divisions among them. This quite clearly greatly underestimated the strength of these divisions; and it also failed to take account of what might be called an epistemic dimension, meaning that it is a great deal easier to attribute social ills to Jews, black people, immigrants, other ethnic or religious groups than to a social system and to the men who run it and who are of the same nationality, ethnicity, or religion. To acquire this class consciousness requires a mental leap which many people in the working class (and beyond) have performed, but which many other people, subject to intense obfuscations, have not … [C]lass location produces a consciousness which is much more complex and wayward than Marxism assumed; for it leads to reactionary positions as well as progressive ones …”.
Thus, in order to accommodate the limited capacities of most people, especially the working class, the New Left increasingly made its arguments in narrower group-identity terms. Hence the rise of the hyphenated Marxists — feminist-Marxists, Afro-Marxists, nationalist-Marxists, eco-Marxists, and so on.
For more see “The Crisis of Socialism,” which is Chapter 5 of Explaining Postmodernism, especially pp. 156-159.
(Thanks to James Fencil for the link.)
Posted 1 month, 1 week ago at 7:46 am. 4 comments
The thirteen arguments are:
1. Liberal capitalism increases freedom.
2. People work harder in liberal capitalist systems.
3. People work smarter under liberal capitalism.
4. Liberalism increases individuality and creativity.
5. Liberal capitalism increases the average standard of living.
6. The poor are better off under liberal capitalism.
7. Liberal capitalism generates more philanthropy.
8. More outstanding individuals flourish under liberal capitalism.
9. Liberalism’s individualism increases happiness.
10. Liberal capitalist societies are more interesting.
11. Tolerance increases under liberal capitalism.
12. Sexism and racism decrease under capitalism.
13. Liberal capitalism leads to international peace.
And here is the full playlist at YouTube.
Posted 1 month, 3 weeks ago at 8:22 am. 12 comments
Part 8 of the audiobook version of my Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View.
Part 8. Nazi and Anti-Nazi Philosophies [mp3] [YouTube] [7 minutes]
40. Hindsight and future resolve [mp3] [YouTube]
41. Principled anti-Nazism [mp3] [YouTube]
Part 1. Introduction: Philosophy and History [mp3] [YouTube]
Part 2. Explaining Nazism Philosophically [mp3] [YouTube]
Part 3. National Socialist Philosophy [mp3] [YouTube]
Part 4. The Nazis in Power [mp3] [YouTube]
Part 5. Nietzsche’s Life and Influence [mp3] [YouTube]
Part 6. Nietzsche against the Nazis [mp3] [YouTube]
Part 7. Nietzsche as a Proto-Nazi [mp3] [YouTube]
The Nietzsche and the Nazis page.
Posted 2 months ago at 8:10 am. 1 comment
In chronological order:
1893 New Zealand
1918 Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia
1920 United States
1928 Britain, Ireland
All other countries in the world: Granted later or not yet granted.
Interesting: Six of the fifteen are British or former British colonies, and the other nine are northern European.
Posted 2 months, 1 week ago at 8:12 am. 3 comments
Professor Capaldi lectured recently at Rockford University on the topic of “The Lockean Liberty Narrative versus the Rousseau Equality Narrative, and How These Narratives Explain Everything.” Afterward we discussed his themes — the conflict between the Lockean and Rousseauian narratives, enterprise and civil societies, the nature of the corporation, corporate philanthropy, cronyism, and more.
Professor Capaldi is the Legendre-Soulé Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Loyola University, New Orleans. He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. from Columbia University. He has taught at a variety of universities in the USA and around the world, including Columbia University, Queens College, City University of New York, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the National University of Singapore.
His principal research and teaching interest is in public policy and its intersection with political science, philosophy, law, religion, and economics. He is the author of seven books, including The Two Narratives of Political Economy (2010), John Stuart Mill: A Biography (2004), and America’s Spiritual Capital (2012).
Professor Capaldi’s talk was sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. More about Dr. Capaldi here.
Posted 2 months, 1 week ago at 8:44 am. Add a comment