Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The commies and me!

When I was in high school, I started to get the impression we weren't hearing the whole story about communism. It was the '80's, and we heard plenty of stories about people bravely escaping from the evil Soviet empire, and all about how their propaganda paper was named "Pravda" which -- ironically -- means truth! Yet, I wondered what this cold-war stand-off looked like to ordinary people on their side.

It wasn't until grad school, however, that I decided to investigate. Politically, I'd gladly sloughed off religious social conservatism when I stopped believing in Mormonism, but I figured that the jury was still out on Reaganite borrow-and-spend supply-side economics. Then I started listening to Rush Limbaugh and some other right-wing radio shows. It began when my then-husband found them entertaining. I found them entertaining too, at first. But they gradually convinced me that their convictions were based on bile, anger, and especially ignorance and stupidity.

(Yep, it's true! I used to be a regular listener of the Rush Limbaugh show, back in the early days before all the scandals broke about his drug use and about getting out of military service because of a boil on his butt. The experience basically inoculated me for life against having any kind of respect for the Republican Party.)

Since I was anti-impressed by the right, the next obvious stop was to see what the left had to say. I started with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States -- an excellent book, and a fascinating look at a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective! I was sold on it immediately. My next stop was to check out the campus Communist club.

I liked the campus Communists at first, and I participated in their club for a few months. Yet in the end they failed to convert me to Leninism. The key problem was the lack of new ideas and new analysis. Each group of ideologues seemed to have a favorite intellectual who has thought up some clever analysis fifty or a hundred years ago, but nobody seemed willing or able to evaluate and modify their theories based on observation of human society over the past half-century. The closest thing to modern analysis was when people would interpret current events in terms of their chosen beliefs, like holy writ.

Here's an example I found particularly frustrating: the fall of the Soviet Union. The right took it as complete vindication and proof that they're right, and my new Communist friends' position was no more nuanced. The Trotskyists took it as proof that Stalin had sold out the revolution, and the Stalinists took it as proof of the age-old claim that the revolution must be global otherwise the evil capitalists will destroy it. In short, nobody learned a damn thing.

For myself, I felt like it should have been possible to gather some data and do some socio-economic research about which things worked, which things didn't, and why. Take, for example, the idea of a centralized command economy, which I was reminded of when reading The Jungle recently:

Since the same kind of match would light everyone's fire, and the same shaped loaf of bread would fill everyone's stomach, it would be perfectly feasible to submit industry to the control of a majority vote. [...] As soon as the birth-agony was over, and the wounds of society had been healed, there would be established a simple system whereby each man was credited with his labor and debited with his purchases; and after that the process of production exchange, and consumption would go on automatically, and without our being conscious of them, any more than a man is conscious of his beating heart.

Okay, that was a clever and intriguing idea when The Jungle was published, back in 1906. But there's something wrong when people are still making this claim ninety years later, after some of the (rather obvious) flaws have become painfully apparent: production of all goods in a society requires far too much specific logistical management to submit every decision to popular referendum, and electing a committee to run not only the legal system but the entire economy means concentrating too much power in too few hands.

On the other hand, it's equally simplistic and stupid to imagine that -- just because the above doesn't work -- that proves that private interests are the most efficient providers of every type of goods and services a society needs. If you open your eyes and look at the evidence around you, you'll see that the private sector and the public sector each have their strengths and their weaknesses. It's not a question of choosing which one is "right" and which one is "wrong" -- it's a question of optimizing your strategy by using the best of both. There may even be other ways we haven't even thought of yet for organizing labor and capital to produce goods and services! With the rate that society and technology are changing, why assume the possibilities from a century ago are the only possibilities available to us today?

In retrospect, of course, I can see that it was unfair of me to expect this level of analysis from the campus Communist club. Clearly, what I was looking for was the Economics Department.

I had a few other, more legitimate problems with the club, however:

First of all, they were always on about the working class and labor unions, but -- as far as I could tell -- they didn't know anyone who was blue-collar and/or in a labor union, and didn't have any interest in meeting any. (I was actually one up on them since I was dating a bus driver, who, in fact, took me to see an actual Communist Party parade in Paris. That was a fascinating cultural experience! Unfortunately, the relationship didn't end very well.)

On top of that, all of their activities were focused on proselytizing and fund-raising (in preparation for "the revolution"). I wanted to do something that was a little closer to reality, so I helped organize an anti-war protest with them. (I talked about this in my Confessions of a former Nader voter posts.) To put it mildly, that demonstration didn't go quite the way I'd hoped. We gathered up all of the different Communist, Anarchist, Quaker, and other radical organizations in the area, and, let's just say, some of them were pretty weird (not the Quakers, BTW).

The worst part was when one person stood up to speak at the rally and gave a speech in support of Saddam Hussein. The second-worst part was visiting another local Communist club and noting that on their literature table they had a book called Rethinking Stalin. I know, there have been other leaders who have "cracked a few eggs to make an omelet" and are remembered as heroes anyway (see: The Bible), and yet I'm still not in favor of "rethinking Stalin." And the third worst part was when someone from one of the smaller radical groups stood up at the rally to denounce the goals of the rally. I met Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists, and others I couldn't identify, and boy-oh-boy did these guys hate each other worse than they hated any capitalist! If you've seen the "People's Front of Judea" scene from The Life of Brian, you might think it's an over-the-top exaggeration.

It's not.

And so ended my adventures with Communism.


gburnett said...

Great analysis, C.L.! It's true that they spend a lot of time idealizing the past and very little time (if at all) updating communist theory. Not a sign of a healthy school of thought. I also agree that the false choice of private or public is not helpful and that the best solution lies somewhere in the middle. OF all the places you've been, where do you think the best blend of private and public is?

The Sinister Porpoise said...

Rush has mellowed out over the years and he's actually a moderate compared to many of his imitators.

The boil thing, however, is untrue. His selective service number simply didn't come up. As he's not a politician, it doesn't matter so much.

Whether or not you agree with his political views, Rush did host the number one radio talk show for weeks without being able to hear a word his callers were saying.

And I, too, eventually started to wonder what common life was actually like and what was told about us on the other side of the Iron curtain.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks gburnett!!!

I can't really rank countries since I think some do some things better and others do other things better. However, I do think that in the U.S. many people are still (mentally) living in the cold war: Since "the enemy" = communist Russia = the public sector, then that must mean that "the good guys" = "the American way" = private sector all the way, baby!

It's a huge mental stumbling block when it comes to doing a rational, balanced, evidence-based, modern analysis of production and distribution of goods and services.

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

Ah, that's too bad that the butt-boil story isn't true. What do you mean he couldn't hear his callers, though? Was someone typing them for him and giving them to him on a computer screen? Or was he just ignoring them?

The Sinister Porpoise said...

Rush Limbaugh has a cochlear implant. He was deaf. He literally could not hear his callers. An autoimmune condition attacked his eardrums.

He's not the only one who's become addicted to prescription painkillers, but this story came about at the same time he underwent treatment for addiction.

Sabayon said...

Wow, I can't believe your campus had that many communist factions. I can believe that is was just like the Judean People's Front though. I think the main reason most Communist groups were not really re-evaluating their message after the collapse of the USSR is because most people who were re-evaluating communist ideas at that point were not calling themselves communists anymore, but Socialists or other. It seems like Communism became so associated with the USSR and China that people who didn't agree with that form of governance were distancing themselves from the communist label.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sabayon!!!

It's a high popularion-density area, and not all the groups (and individuals) were associated with Rutgers New Brunswick.

That's a good point about the word Communism being associated specifically with China and Russia, so people who are interested in new alternatives wouldn't use that label anymore.

the chaplain said...

boy-oh-boy did these guys hate each other worse than they hated any capitalist

Are you sure they weren't Christians?

Beat Dad said...

Hey Chanson,

Some interesting books on Soviet life under Communism are the books written by some of the authors who could not get works published by the government.

One interesting book is Kolyma Tales by Shalamov, Also "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov. The first is about living in the Gulag, the second , is a critique on Soviet society, censorship and atheism.
Add them to your reading list.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Chaplain!!!

You know, it's funny -- that was one of the things that most put me off of wanting to be in their group: it reminded me of religion.

Hey Beat Dad!!!

Oh, no -- the last thing I need is more items on my to-read list! J/K, sounds interesting.