How I Almost Became a Communist
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I was talking to a friend the other day and he mentioned how his son “needed space”. That he needed somewhere he could go to get away from everyone else. I have no doubt that this is true, but it made me wonder why it’s true. Certainly this is not a need that would have been recognized or catered to 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. I remember that when I was growing up sharing a room with a sibling was the rule rather than the exception. I specifically recall one family which had four boys all sharing a room (families were also bigger back then as well). And this is just within my lifetime. If you go even farther back, you’ll find entire families sharing a single room or even a single bed.
My intent is not to pick on this kid or his need for space. As I said I’m sure he does need space, I’m just wondering where that comes from. How and why have things changed so much in just the last few decades. And of course maybe I’m misidentifying what’s changed. Maybe in the past people still needed space they just went outside and spent hours being unsupervised. Which is another place where people take issue with the modern world, and we just noticed that people “need space” now because kids basically spend all their time inside. Or, perhaps most likely, it’s a combination of both.
The point I’m getting at is remind people, as I have mentioned before, that the past is a foreign country. And it’s difficult to imagine both the thoughts of those “foreigners”, and the emotions they experienced. Particularly if no effort is made to shed modern prejudices and ideology, to abandon your viewpoint and embrace the perspectives of the past. And, of course, if you’re not able to do this, not only will you find it hard to understand people in the past, you’ll find it hard not to condemn them.
If you are interested in understanding the past (and you should be) then probably the easiest way to do it is reading books, particularly books written during that era. You might think of them as sort of a travel guide. This post came about in part because, without really setting out to, I recently ended up reading several books, all written in the period between the two World Wars. Specifically:
In Dubious Battle by Steinbeck
For Whom the Bell Tolls By Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms By Hemingway
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
Before we continue, I read quite a bit of Steinbeck beyond just “In Dubious Battle”, just barely finishing East of Eden, his magnum opus, and once I’m done with that, I think I may be done with Steinbeck for good. (Though I have heard I should at least read Cannery Row before deciding to abandon Steinbeck forever.) It’s mostly pretty depressing stuff, though he’s a gifted writer. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine she wanted to know what she should read, so since I already wrote something up I thought I might as well include it here, as long as we’re on the subject.
Despite reading a lot of Steinbeck I haven’t read all of it, by any stretch, but Wikipedia lists five books under his Major Works and I have read all of those. Restricting myself to just those five, this is what I told her:
In Dubious Battle: Read this book if you want the clearest vision of his political sympathies.
Of Mice and Men: If you want to experience the recurring sadness of a Steinbeck book in the fewest number of pages read this one.
The Grapes of Wrath: If you’re only going to read one book, you should probably read this one, since it’s a great novel and also gives you the political angle.
East of Eden: His best novel and probably his best book period.
Travels with Charley: If you’d rather read some non-fiction and get a feel for Steinbeck himself. Also the “least sad” book on the list.
As I said Steinbeck is definitely a talented writer, and in fact all of the authors of the interwar books I mentioned were great writers, and, returning to my original point, much of what made them great was their ability to transport the reader back to the time when the book was written. Back to a time when a lot of things were different, but in this post I mostly want to focus on just one difference. The generally favorable way they treated communism and socialism (which were less differentiated then than now). And, particularly in the case of “In Dubious Battle”, Steinbeck’s passion for it. It should be noted that two of the books I listed dealt very specifically with the Spanish Civil War, a conflict which was largely viewed as a war between communism and fascism. When you have fascists on the other side it makes any sympathy for communism more understandable.
As I was reading these books I confess to being initially resistant to viewing communism favorably, even granting the differences between eras. But as I said, the authors have a way of drawing you in, and before you know it you end up with at least a certain amount of understanding and sympathy for the author’s viewpoint and the struggles people experienced during that time. And I started wondering what I would have thought if I had actually been alive during the interwar years. I wonder if I might have taken a path similar to Orwell, who initially viewed the communists sympathetically and joined up with them as a means of achieving the greater goal of defeating Franco and the fascists before becoming disillusioned (and nearly killed) by communist infighting, leading him to eventually write books like Animal Farm and 1984.
Perhaps it’s best to begin by discussing my initial reluctance, which stems from several sources. First the excesses and murders of communism have been very well documented. I have, on the bookshelf behind me The Big Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, which I confess I have yet to read, but I am nevertheless very familiar with the facts. From one of the reviews:
Communism did kill, Courtois and his fellow historians demonstrate, with ruthless efficiency: 25 million in Russia during the Bolshevik and Stalinist eras, perhaps 65 million in China under the eyes of Mao Zedong, 2 million in Cambodia, millions more Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America--an astonishingly high toll of victims. This freely expressed penchant for homicide, Courtois maintains, was no accident, but an integral trait of a philosophy, and a practical politics, that promised to erase class distinctions by erasing classes and the living humans that populated them. Courtois and his contributors document Communism's crimes in numbing detail, moving from country to country, revolution to revolution. The figures they offer will likely provoke argument, if not among cliometricians then among the ideologically inclined. So, too, will Courtois's suggestion that those who hold Lenin, Trotsky, and Ho Chi Minh in anything other than contempt are dupes, witting or not, of a murderous school of thought--one that, while in retreat around the world, still has many adherents. A thought-provoking work of history and social criticism, The Black Book of Communism fully merits the broadest possible readership and discussion.
In defense of the intra-war authors I mentioned, most of these crimes were years in the future, and those that had already happened had been very effectively covered up.
Another source of my reluctance comes from being a Mormon, which has had a strong ideological distaste for communism going back decades. The biggest advocate probably being Ezra Taft Benson, who went on to be the president of the Church from 1985 to 1994. Most people seem to agree that by the time he became President of the Church he was no longer that concerned, but previous to that, particularly in the 60s and 70s when he was just an apostle (one of 12) he gave some pretty fiery speeches, many of which are still preserved in the churches archives. For example:
Communism introduced into the world a substitute for true religion. It is a counterfeit of the gospel plan. The false prophets of Communism predict a utopian society. This, they proclaim, will only be brought about as capitalism and free enterprise are overthrown, private property abolished, the family as a social unit eliminated, all classes abolished, all governments overthrown, and a communal ownership of property in a classless, stateless society established.
Since 1917 this godless counterfeit to the gospel has made tremendous progress toward its objective of world domination.
Interestingly my reaction to Steinbeck’s passion for communism and Benson’s opposition was very similar. Though I intend to spend more time on the former than the latter, Benson’s comments also felt foreign. Obviously in part this is because in 2018 we’re 27 years past the breakup of the Soviet Union and while currently China is still communist, it’s largely in name only. On the other hand Benson’s opposition happened during the height of the Cold War, when events like Sputnik, the Hungarian Revolution, and the Cuban Missile Crisis were still very fresh. Nearly 30 years after its collapse it’s easy to dismiss the threat of international communism because we know how it turned out, but it didn’t look like a sure thing at the time. A point I’ll be returning to.
I think the final and perhaps biggest source for my initial reluctance to identify with the author’s and their favorable views of communism comes from evaluating the injustices people currently worry about. Which for a variety of reasons I’ve already touched on, do not appear to be all that bad. This is because most of the injustices people hoped communism would fix, were fixed without communism, more effectively and more quickly than the communists themselves managed, even when given free reign. But this doesn’t mean that during the interwar period there weren’t horrible injustices being committed, And this leads me to the central point I wanted to cover.
There’s no longer any question of whether the fascists are going to conquer Spain. The last time someone died during a labor dispute, according to Wikipedia, was 1979 (and the last time before that was 1959.) Arguably even war has gotten a lot better since the end of World Wars. As I said everything those authors were concerned about has gotten a lot better, some might even argue that all of these problems are now solved, but they certainly hadn’t been solved at the time when they were writing, They were still very real and very big. When Steinbeck talks about hundreds of migrant farm workers traveling long distances to pick apples, only to have the apple growers drop the wages being offered once they’ve arrived, I’m sure that exact thing happened countless times. As well as the arson, and the murders, and the twisting of laws, and the corrupt public officials Steinbeck describes as well.
Accordingly it’s understandable for someone of that era to be sympathetic to communism, especially If you were one of those migrant workers constantly getting jerked around by the growers, or a poor farmer fleeing the dust bowl, like the Joads, or fighting literal nazis during the Spanish Civil War like Hemingway and Orwell, or someone who was aware of all these injustices. For all these people, I can see where communism must have seemed pretty attractive. Not only did it promise better working conditions, more money, and less inequality, it seemed to be a better way to deal with the world in nearly all aspects. In fact communism had, or was assumed to have, advantages I hadn’t even considered.
This realization came from something else I read recently. As is so often the case I found it while reading SlateStarCodex (in this case one of the older entries). It was a book review of Red Plenty. I’ve already described how no one (or at least very few) foresaw the vast number of deaths communist regimes would end up being responsible for. In other words it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that communism would fail morally. Red Plenty describes how it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that it would fail economically either. This surprised me. These days the conventional, if somewhat simplistic wisdom, is that if you want a wealthy, productive country, capitalism is the clear choice. But if you want to take care of poor and disadvantaged people socialism/communism is better. At first glance, communism appears to start with a leg-up morally, which is why it’s understandable that people didn’t expect it’s moral failure, but these days we assume that its economic failure should have been obvious. Red Plenty makes the case that it certainly wasn’t obvious to the communists and it wasn’t considered a foregone conclusion even in the West, particularly in the 50’s.
As I said, I was surprised by this, but when you start thinking about production and economic output, communism, potentially has a lot of advantages. The biggest advantage being all the things they don’t have to spend time and energy on. For example advertising and marketing, exorbitant CEO salaries (and the associated wasteful luxuries) research and development, etc. All the time and energy which would be spent on these things can instead be spent on making the entire economy work better. On top of all the activities you don’t have to worry about at all, there are all the other areas which would presumably experience economies of scale. Things like healthcare, and human resources, knowledge about business processes, etc.
Sure there might be some disadvantages from eliminating the motivation of greed, but to balance that out they save countless millions of manhours elsewhere. You can quickly see where this argument would lead the Soviets to believe in the 50s that not only could they provide better for the poor (the supposed core advantage of communism) but that on top of that they would also out produce the West. I don’t think this is precisely the argument Kruschev was making when he gave his famous We Will Bury You! Speech, but it all fits together in their ideology.
Once you hear this, and think about it for a minute, it’s a reasonable argument. One that was largely proven false by subsequent events (and a lot of help from Stalin and Mao), but once again, at the time people didn’t know that. The argument was reasonable, and one more point for communism.
While the broad strokes of why things didn’t work out the way they hoped are widely understood the specifics are still fascinating. I’ll let Alexander relate my favorite example:
A tire factory had been assigned a tire-making machine that could make 100,000 tires a year, but the government had gotten confused and assigned them a production quota of 150,000 tires a year. The factory leaders were stuck, because if they tried to correct the government they would look like they were challenging their superiors and get in trouble, but if they failed to meet the impossible quota, they would all get demoted and their careers would come to an end. They learned that the tire-making-machine-making company had recently invented a new model that really could make 150,000 tires a year. In the spirit of Chen Sheng, they decided that since the penalty for missing their quota was something terrible and the penalty for sabotage was also something terrible, they might as well take their chances and destroy their own machinery in the hopes the government sent them the new improved machine as a replacement. To their delight, the government believed their story about an “accident” and allotted them a new tire-making machine. However, the tire-making-machine-making company had decided to cancel production of their new model. You see, the new model, although more powerful, weighed less than the old machine, and the government was measuring their production by kilogram of machine. So it was easier for them to just continue making the old less powerful machine. The tire factory was allocated another machine that could only make 100,000 tires a year and was back in the same quandary they’d started with.
It’s interesting to pick out from the story what they used instead of prices. We see quotas, central planning, punishments and, perhaps, the most ridiculous, the weight of equipment being produced. And none of those systems was able to compensate for the signal provided by the price.
At this point if I wasn’t nearly out of space, we might delve into a discussion of how capitalism’s real strength is that it acts as a giant computer for calculating value, getting things where they need to go, and reflecting scarcity. Perhaps I’ll get into that in a future post. But in this post we’re talking about all the reasons why communism seemed so great. And how easy it was to miss the factors that would cause it to eventually fail. When I look back on the issue of pricing, there were certainly people who understood that it was going to be a big weakness of communism, but I don’t think it was so obvious that we should hold it against people like Steinbeck and Hemingway that they missed it. Anyone who has zero reservations about setting a minimum wage is essentially making the same mistake. And my sense is we still have a lot of those people.
One of the main points I’m trying to get across, is to urge people to exercise a little bit more kindness and understanding for people in the past. And this includes both Steinbeck and Benson. Both because it’s hard to imagine how bad laborers had it in the 30s and because it’s hard to imagine how scary the cold war looked in the 60s. Also, it should probably go without saying that this kindness and understanding should extend to people in the present. (And I would not argue with you if you claimed I could do better on both.)
That said, I am of the opinion that one can be understanding and kind while still being critical, or perhaps more accurately while still thinking critically. I know many people would argue that’s an oxymoron, but I disagree. As we saw with communism, some things, no matter how noble their intent, or how pure their aims, end up not working. The fact that communism didn’t (and doesn’t) work, doesn’t mean bad things weren’t happening, that injustices weren’t being committed, that people weren’t dying. All it means is that communism wasn’t the best way of helping those people, despite, on its face, appearing to be the ideal solution.
I know that for some people this will be hard to believe, but I really am trying to figure out the best way to help all the people who need it. Accordingly, when I take issue with utopian plans or visions for a better world, or criticisms of this system or that, I’m not doing it because there is no injustice, or because I think the harms aren’t real, or because I don’t want a better world. When I wonder if The Pervnado/#MeToo Movement is getting out of hand it’s not because I think that sexual harassment never happens, or that it’s not really bad, or that women routinely lie about it. It’s because we’ve seen idealism perverted before, we’ve seen legitimately horrible injustices used an an excuse for greater injustices. We’ve seen a system that seemed, at the time, to have everything going for it, a system that really seemed to care about the injustice, and poverty and the wrongs men commit against each other. And we saw that same system turn into one of the largest disasters the world has ever known.
Speaking of understanding, I probably could do better, but how many people understand my argument connecting AI to Mormon Theology vs. how many who understand social justice? If you think the former might be just as important to understand as the latter consider donating.