Tags: Communism

Communism for Kids


If you’ve been wondering what to get for your favorite child this non-denominational Christmas, a Teutonic author of kid lit is here to help.

Kreuzberg-based performance artist and writer Bini Adamczak’s 2004 Kommunismus: Kleine Geschichte, wie endlich alles anders wird will be appearing soon in English translation, according to The New Inquiry. The children’s book tells of a series of struggles by a ragtag group against a powerful and multifarious foe — like the Harry Potter series, but without a Voldemort: “In my book there is no evil character,” Adamczak tells Critical Theory. “However, the process of reification is represented in the coming to life of things: chairs, for example, or factories. Even though they are made by people they become independent and act on their own. But even the factories are not simply evil but act under conditions (of the market) that they can not chose. Sometimes they even feel sad and have to cry.”#ad#

So it’s like Beauty and the Beast — everyday objects becoming animated? Not exactly. Adamczak specializes in political and queer theory, and her book unites these two strains in a way kids are sure to love. “Everybody in the book is somehow female,” Adamczak tells us, “but there are as many different shades of femininity as there are people.” According to a biographical sketch, the author is “an unstable alliance of everyday reproduction modes, unwanted heritages and quarrelsome spectres, such as deconstructivist feminisms and the orthodox critique of value.”

Kommunismus will be just one among many works of resurgent Marxism that have hit our shores recently. The free market’s roaring reception of Thomas Piketty’s Capital In the 21st Century this summer clearly gave new life to the old Marxist saw that capitalism leads inevitably to the immiseration of the laboring classes, but the idea has been out there since at least Occupy Wall Street, and it’s evident in blue America’s gradual transition from union-dominated politics to direct rule by community organizers. None of this is making the poor any less poor, of course. Marxism never actually does that. But as parents know, you can never guess what weird old thing from the forgotten past the kids will get into. It hasn’t hurt that Piketty’s scholarship was so widely praised across the spectrum (though read this recent critique by George Mason University professor Phil Magness before you close the book on r > g).

An English excerpt from Kommunismus will show why Critical Theory writer Eugene Wolters is “pretty ecstatic” about the upcoming translation:

The people return to their factories. Only, now, they don’t make what the factories want, they make what they want to make themselves. And to show that the factory belongs to those who work in it, they hang little black-and-red flags out of the factory’s windows. Every morning the people sit down together in a big circle and discuss how they want to work that day. Each person can choose what he or she most wants to do, and everyone is allowed to do everything. There are no more bosses. It will take some considerable time for everybody to be really able to do everything: bend metal, hammer nails, and think. Because of course, it’s easier in some ways to only ever do one thing. Yet, little by little, the people learn. And it isn’t all that long before the first iron comes out of the factory. The irons now are all made with a great deal of love and care. Each one looks a little different to the others. You can even find tiny red hearts and little black stars painted on some of them.

Eventually, when enough irons have been gathered together, the iron-making people decide that it’s now time to bring the irons to the marketplace. They have made far too many to use themselves. And, since there are no longer any sales-people in society, the iron-making people choose two of their own who shall go to the marketplace. It’s agreed that, next time, it will be others who are allowed to go, so that everybody gets a turn.

In the morning, the two iron-making people who were chosen to be iron-sales-people for the day get up and go to market with the irons.

It’s always tempting to get sucked into the fascinating boredom of Marxist dialectic. In this case the author seems to be setting up the story for some kind of reversal wherein the apparent utopia turns out to be false and another start must be made toward the immanentization of true communism — which, like the English-language edition of Adamczak’s book, is always right around the corner but never quite gets here. Since applied Marxism has to date produced nothing but violence, there is plenty of material for stories where things don’t work out. Google translates the book’s title as Communism: A Short History, like finally everything will be different, and if that slightly blasé tone comes across in the original German, it suggests a kind of millennial “whatever” attitude toward the promises of the past. Commies are always sure they won’t get fooled again.

Adamczak is part of a rising group of neo-Marxists including the founders of the print magazine Jacobin, “self-taught Marxist political economist” Benjamin Kunkel, slovenly Slovenian Slavoj Žižek, and Marxist geographer David Harvey. You can find them hovering in spirit over the Occupy movement, venturing further out on the equality spectrum than Piketty, and observing with interest the ascendancy of faux-populists like Elizabeth Warren — though they probably don’t want anybody to notice their interest, because people like Warren are lukewarm Mensheviks to the true believers. (Then again there are still other true believers who say Menshevism was the road not taken that would have produced real communism, if only Trotsky had not been killed, or this one hadn’t murdered that one, or the other one had not disappeared so many people who failed to cheer for him loudly enough, or a few too many million enemies of the revolution had not starved to death, and so on.) Most of the New Marxists don’t seem to have a very deep familiarity with the master’s writings or what the first few generations of his followers did with those writings. But, like teenagers playing around with an old book of incantations during an all-night party at a spooky house, they don’t really need to understand the text in order to cause a lot of trouble.

Since kids by definition have no experience of the horror of history, they are — like the Marxist Millennials we were hearing about a few months back — the only possible audience for this kind of message. But it’s kind of hard to see young readers finding much of interest in these stories about people making nails, or the plug-ugly illustrations. (Though it is nice to see the Marxist tradition of making products nobody wants is still alive.) A roundup of Stalinist children’s books in the UK Guardian last year contained a punchier excerpt from Nikolai Bukharin’s 1920 The ABC of Communism: “The salvation of the young mind and the freeing of it from the noxious reactionary beliefs of their parents is one of the highest aims of the proletarian government.”

No parents. So it’s like A Series of Unfortunate Events, except Count Olaf — a redistributionist if ever there was one — is the hero.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Tags: Communism , children

Hanoi Michael


Despite our mostly theoretical, retrospective, and cultural conversations hereabouts, the actual political situation is getting rather tense:  the Border Disaster, the Big Amnesty Threat, the IRS-scandal, ISIS, the Gaza war, and my own peculiar fear that Obama perhaps pushing Republicans into the corner of having to resort to impeachment will coincide with autopilot Obama/EU policy perhaps pushing Putin into the corner of deciding to damn-it-all and just unleash the dogs of war.  A perfect storm a’comin?

So it felt rather relaxingly apolitical to take a stroll with the brilliant “war-zone correspondent/travel writer” Michael Totten through contemporary Vietnam.  Putting aside the frightening traffic, awful climate, and one other wee lil’ problem, life there is improving by leaps and bounds.  So much so that Totten concludes his piece by asking himself this:

Could I live in Cairo? No. Baghdad? Hell no. Havana? No chance. Not while it’s under the boot heel of the Castros. Rabat? Perhaps. Beirut? I have already lived in Beirut and theoretically could do so again. But what about Hanoi?

That causes him to remember the other problem I alluded to:

Vietnam is a pleasant destination for tourists, for sure, but it’s also a one-party nominally communist state. I have viscerally detested communism since the first moment I learned about it as a child. No political system in the history of the human race has killed such a vast number of people. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were the greatest geopolitical events of my lifetime. Every cell in my body rebelled at the existential heaviness of the state in Cuba on my last long trip abroad and after a week I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I had to look it squarely in the eye in Vietnam without flinching.

Could I live there, despite it?

Yes. I believe so.

As long as I stayed out of politics.

Tags: Communism , Vietnam , Michael Totten

Tyranny and Responsibility: On Jan Palach’s Deed


This is my third and final post related to the brilliant Czech film Burning Bush (trailer is here). Here are posts one and two.

“We’re all stuck between millstones.” So says the cemetery manager to Jiří Palach (Jan’s older brother). The manager is being pressured by the Communist party to get Jiří to move Jan’s body to a different location outside of Prague. The gravesite, according to the Party, has become a site for “anti-state” activities. Jiří, of course, pushes back against the cemetery manager’s “request.” The manager pleads with Jiří that soon he won’t have any choice in the matter — the state can, by law, simply remove the body and have it cremated without anyone’s consent.

The millstones line is a perfectly apt description of everyone’s status under the Communist regime. The implicit argument in this context is that Jiří would have consented to the removal of Jan’s body had he truly appreciated the position of the cemetery manager. The responsible thing to do in such situations is to sympathize with other actor who will be affected by one’s own action. Recognizing the millstones pressing upon others dictates that one must act to minimize the risks and difficulties of others. Further, it is likely the case that the cemetery manager is an utterly decent and honorable man. Why should Jiří make his life difficult by refusing this request? And for all we know, the member of the interior ministry who has been in touch with the manager about the Palach grave is also decent and honorable. The manager, in turn, wouldn’t want to make his life difficult. Thus, difficult, unpalatable, and ultimately unjust actions are justified throughout this intricate, hierarchical web of command. Note I don’t say “chain” — the hierarchy is not always overt and the contacts to the official state bureaucracy may not be routine. Most importantly, the state never simply dictates — it demands affirmation of and participation in its decisions. For example, after Palach’s coffin has been removed from the gravesite and it is about to be cremated, we see the representative of the state with a clipboard standing next to the cemetery manager. The manager has to sign a form that presumably, in some way, authorizes or legitimates the removal and subsequent cremation of the body. Thus nobody can claim innocence or isolation. Everyone must have a hand in these actions. Herein lies a distinctive feature of totalitarianism. As Pavel Bratinka once put it to me, “The decisive fact is this: People were forced to express their agreement and joy with things they considered idiotic and criminal. People’s lives were ruined over small things, like in my case refusing to join the Socialist Union of Youth.” Personal responsibility is thus everywhere and nowhere in places like Communist Czechoslovakia.

True responsibility is a threat to the regime. This is why the regime’s response to Palach’s self-immolation denied that he was responsible for his actions. Palach, according to Vílem Nový’s speech, was both mentally unbalanced (and thus could not really understand what he was doing) and manipulated by malicious right-wing elements. Even characters in the film who are not at all sympathetic to the regime and its response to Palach make the charge that he could not have been in his right mind — both Vladimir Charouz (Daša’s boss at the legal aid bureau) and Daša’s husband Radim suggest something along these lines. This is precisely why the Palachs pursue their lawsuit. However troubling Jan’s act is for them — Libuše (Jan’s mother), in particular, goes through a harrowing ordeal questioning her son’s love for and devotion to her and then must endure the state’s viscious response to her lawsuit—they understand that to preserve the memory of Jan and his legacy they must secure his act as truly his own.

The evidence suggests Jan Palach was quite deliberate about his action. On his chosen day, the Central Committee of the Communist Party was meeting at Prague Castle. The place of his self-immolation was a quiet yet highly visible spot at the top of Wenceslas Square near the National Museum, a central and symbolic place. We know he edited the text of his last letter — his roommates found a rough draft. According to Eva Kantürková, the final draft differed from the first in its “forcefulness, brevity, and in being stripped of all emotional coloring.” He also changed his thoughts about his demands, in the end settling on two: an end to censorship and the abolition of a propaganda organ called Zprávy.

Though in his letter Palach warned that if his demands were not met, other “torches” would come forward, nobody has ever confirmed the existence of the group to which he alluded. It may be this was a mere tactic designed to add to the weight of his own deed, or perhaps he thought his own act would inspire more torches (which it did). The demands seem somewhat modest or out of proportion with his deed, but again he apparently considered this carefully before settling on those two demands. Looking at the deed itself as rendered in the film and considered in light his demands and the political circumstances of Czechoslovakia, Palach’s act seems extreme and alien to the scope a defensible ethical universe. Ought one sacrifice oneself for a free press and the abolition of one worthless newspaper?

His painful sacrifice is a striking display of courage, a willingness to confront evil. But perhaps more than that, Palach’s deed is aimed squarely those millstones pressing on his fellow citizens. Herein is its true importance. The metaphorical millstones are quite real. There were consequences, sometimes dire, for not acting in line with the Party’s needs and desires. One hesitates to blame people for not resisting. Yet if one follows this logic out too far, human beings become the play-things of necessity — they are not and cannot be responsible for themselves and their actions. Their surrender of their own responsibility confirms the force of necessity — the same force that provides the rationale for sending whole races or social groups to the camps. Palach’s self-sacrifice reaffirmed to irreducible dignity of the human person — a being who must live amidst good and evil (within and without), and bear the responsibility for his choices. His radical act called out to his fellow citizens: here I am, this is what I choose. I have chosen death. In her essay on Palach, Kantürková writes:

Palach aroused the national collectivity, but he did so by an individual deed chosen of his own will. He broke free from what oppresses us: the impossibility of acting ethically under conditions of totality. Under this anti-ethical pressure, which denies the individual the option of freely choosing to act according to his personal conscience, the weak succumb to alcohol or licentiousness, the mediocre become indifferent, and the majority hide privately the wrecks of their ethical sense. . . . Some people simply see further and deeper and are not put off by the obligation to which this seeing commits them.

1989 began in Czechoslovakia with Jan Palach week. A planned ceremony in Wenceslas Square was banned, and a pilgrimage to Palach’s grave outside of Prague was blocked. Eventually over 1400 people were arrested in connection with events that January, including Charter signatories Václav Havel and Dana Němcová. In December of 1989, Dagmar Burešová (the lawyer who represented the Palachs in their libel suit against Novy) became the first Minister of Justice in post-Communist Czechoslovakia.

Tags: Jan Palach , Burning Bush , Communism

Burning Bush: Truth and Consequences


Here are more thoughts occasioned by the brilliant new Czech film Burning Bush. For my first post on the film, go here.

The drama of Burning Bush centers on a libel suit brought by Jan Palach’s brother and mother against a member of the party’s central committee, Vilém Nový.  During a pre-election meeting outside of Prague at the end of February, Nový claimed Palach was a mentally unstable young man who was manipulated by right-wing foreign elements in cooperation with the student movement. He argued Palach had been told that he was being given a special chemical that would allow the fire to burn while also protecting him from harm (referred to as the “cold fire” theory). But the perfidious Western powers never provided the promised protective chemical—giving him gasoline instead.

Part one of Burning Bush concludes with Dagmar Burešová (Daša) and her boss Vladimir Charouz—two lawyers working in a legal aid bureau—reading an article in the newspaper Mlada Fronta quoting Nový’s speech. Both are struck by the boldness of the lie, and Vladimir notes that Nový would never had made such a claim without instructions from Moscow. A few minutes later Palach’s brother and mother arrive (with Ondřej Travniček , a leader in the students movement who has also been libeled) at the legal bureau to ask Daša to represent them in a suit against Nový. Daša is stunned by the request and asks the Palachs to reconsider. She tries to reassure them by suggesting nobody believes the nonsense in the papers. She asks Ondřej if he really understands who Nový is and if he understands the storm that will be brought down on the Palachs should they go on with their suit. As the frustrated Palachs depart, Daša tells them that Nový can’t diminish the significance of Jan’s act. Is she right? Can Jan Palach’s deed be altered by the Communist functionary’s mere words? Can Jan’s deed speak for itself and rise above the blather of Nový and the remarks of other officials?

Near the beginning of part two of the film Daša and her husband Radim are enjoying a night out without their twin daughters. Daša tells her husband that she has decided to represent the Palachs. Radim, who is a physician, asks what she possibly hopes to achieve with the lawsuit.  In reply she asks him if he only takes patients whom he knows he can cure. The date ends abruptly. In the very early morning their debate continues. Daša tells Radim that she is not taking the case for Palach or his brother or mother. She says, “We keep telling the girls that it’s bad to lie, that it’s bad to cheat, that they should be good. But we don’t believe it ourselves anymore.” Thus the passive toleration of lies undermines the basis of the sort of behavior she expects of her children. Daša comes to understand that her refusal to take the Palach case is a deed that contradicts what she tells her children about how to live. Her exhortations to her daughters would be mere words if she can’t bring herself to act in accordance the underlying principles. Just as the integrity of Palach’s deed really is threatened by Nový’s speech, the integrity of Daša’s speeches to her daughters is threatened by the deed of her initial refusal to take the case.

So Daša agrees to represent the Palachs and begins to build her case against Nový throughout part two of the film—the actual trial begins in part three. Once her investigation begins in earnest, we see the malevolent machinery of the party-state bring pressure to bear on everyone connected to the case. Mrs. Palachová is hounded by middle of the night phone calls and knocks at her door. A man who visits the snack bar at the train station where she works “accidentally” leaves his magazine there, which turns out to be full of naked photos of her son after his death. Jiří is pressured by the cemetery overseer to move Jan as his grave is said to be fast becoming a site for anti-state agitation. A complaint is filed against Radim by a patient who is also assisted by the obviously false testimony of a nurse. Daša and Radim’s flat is surveilled around the clock by two men. And Vladimir, Daša’s boss, ends up stealing a key piece of evidence against Nový. In exchange for his assistance, the state offers to protect his daughter Vladka from the consequences that will follow for her fellow members of the student movement. This is all so well-done by the writer, director, and actors that the film is hard to watch as all of the screws tighten. We are led to question Daša’s decision to take the case, and perhaps even to question Palach’s act, as we see his mother being driven to temporary institutionalization. Simple decency makes one wonder whether it’s all worth it.

It seems clear from the outset that the Palachs have little to no chance of winning their case. One must recognize just how important it was that the Communists preserved some of forms and formalities of the rule of law (e.g., the presence of the legal aid bureau and the fact that a suit could be brought at all against someone like Nový). Yes, most of these institutions and processes were hollowed out or utterly corrupted, but their presence allowed the party to maintain certain pretenses about the overall character of public life. The contrast between the appearance and the reality is what led most people to become utterly cynical about anything political and to cease even to pay much attention to politics. When Daša is gathering information for the trial and conducting interviews, more than once does an interlocutor reply with something like “I don’t pay attention to politics.” And who would dare to suggest such an attitude is not entirely justified? One might even go further. Is it not irresponsible to endanger friends and family while waging battles one cannot possibly win? The proper response might be to flatly ignore the deadly games of the powerful and to endure. Vladimir takes precisely this position in a heated argument with a very young colleague who admires Palach and Jan Zajíc, another young man who immolated himself at the end of February (Zajíc swallowed acid before lighting the flame and died before he ever made it to the street on Wenceslas Square). Vladimir tells the young lawyer, “Your generation has no survival instinct!”

So most people kept their distance as much as possible and made concessions when necessary in the hopes of preserving something like a decent life for their families. They did not take a stand for the truth and allowed a drapery of lies to hang lazily around them. The costs were real for those who did take stands: loss of jobs, children denied entry to school, the loss of friends—the list is long. I once asked a dissident, Kamila Bendová (wife of a leader of the Charter 77 movement, Václav Benda), if her children (or those of other dissidents) ever reproached her for her actions that cost them schooling, decent jobs, or even just a quiet life. She said never—she’d never heard of such a thing—and that on the contrary, it was the children of those parents who had compromised themselves for their children’s sake who were filled with anger and guilt later in life. Standing for truth and justice—against all odds—took enormous courage. The film certainly teaches this. But perhaps even more than that, such stances seemed to entail a certain confidence, a certain hopefulness, that better things really are possible—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Václav Benda once wrote an essay about the fate of his friend Jiří  Gruntorád, who endured a prison term and protective custody, among other things. Benda wrote:

Jirka Gruntorád is, in spite of all the bullying, cheerful and resolute, his friends are on the increase…Whereas They walk with their heads hanging, They are afraid of each other, scared of the future, of anything at all. I would not want to provide Jirka and many others with cheap comfort or make light of their situations, but what is raised against them shows signs more of revenge and impotent fury over defeat than any really effective political activity. They have no future ahead of them, and they know it. That does not make them any less dangerous and it would be a bad idea to underestimate them. Their worst problem is that they are almost boundless in the damage they can do, but do not have it in their power to succeed in anything or in any way; such ontological status is sterile from the start, and in time wearisome…They can do anything, but surprisingly it does them no good. We have to endure everything, but each manful endurance strengthens the position of what I would—maybe immodestly—call justice, freedom, truth or good, which in itself undoubtedly has an element of hope.

There is a brilliant touch near the end of the film. It is now January of 1989, and students have joined together to celebrate Jan Palach week. A few students have been putting up flyers in the Prague metro, and they are being chased by police officers. As the students sprint up the long escalator to escape, they inadvertently drop a bunch of flyers—they float randomly to the ground, perhaps never to find their intended audience. Then commuters emerge into the tunnel and most of them—young and old—bend down, grab a flyer, and place it in their pocket. Most of these people probably did not and would not take a stand for the truth. However, they know it when they see it and they want to touch it, to preserve a little of it when they can.


Tags: Burning Bush , Communism , Jan Palach

Burning Bush, Part 1


Peter writes eloquently and often about the “relational” aspect of human nature — the joys of recognizing ourselves as limited beings with the need for powerful and enduring bonds with others. This recognition is untimely in the sense that it is at odds with the prevailing view of our radical autonomy. One irony is that this notion of radical autonomy toward which we appear to be running with open arms is a notion employed, by design, by Communist regimes. Observers often miss this fact, seeing only collectivism at work in Communism. Yet this collectivism was necessarily premised on atomization, on the destruction of ties, of love and friendship, that the state does not authorize. People under Communist rule would cling to this autonomy ever more forcefully as they came to understand the falsity and emptiness of the promised collective. This is why the experience of radical loneliness was such a common element in everyday life under Communism. This is captured quite beautifully in the character of the Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler in the film The Lives of Others. Wiesler rediscovers the possibility of the joys of his relational nature in the course of the film.  For more on that truly great film see the just published volume Totalitarianism on Screen —edited by yours truly and Carl.

Yet what happens when the demands of the truth and the demands of our relational natures appear to diverge? This question is not central to The Lives of Others, but it is at the core of the new film Hořící Keř, or Burning Bush (you can stream the film at Fandor, see previous link). This three-part film (234 total minutes) directed by Agnieszka Holland, which originally aired on HBO Europe, is an absolutely stunning achievement (sadly it is not eligible for an Academy Award because a version of it aired on HBO). Two weeks ago I would have said Lives is unquestionably the best cinematic treatment of Communism, but now it has a clear competitor.

The film is based on real events — the central one being the self-immolation of Charles University student Jan Palach on January 16, 1969, at the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague. The film begins with a haunting portrayal of this deed. To understand this action and the subsequent events covered in Burning Bush, some background is helpful. Palach’s act was in protest of the invasion and occupation of the country the previous August by Soviet and affiliated Warsaw Pact troops. The invasion launched on August 21 — which included over 150,000 troops — ended what would eventually become known as the “Prague Spring.” The period of the 1960s in Czechoslovakia saw a generally loosening of the Communist system: Restrictions on travel were eased and cultural life breathed more freely (novels and plays of genuine merit were published and performed). In early 1968 a reformist wing of the Communist party gained a foothold in crucial institutions and Alexander Dubček was elected as First Secretary of the party. Moscow watched closely that winter and spring and by July decided a forceful crackdown was necessary. Shortly after the invasion on August 21, Dubček and his fellow reformers were arrested and shuttled off to Moscow.  Five days later they were forced to sign the “Moscow Protocol” in which the Czechoslovak Communist party validated nearly all Soviet demands.  In return, the Czechoslovak leaders reoccupied their positions in government and were told troops would be withdrawn as soon as the situation in the country returned to normal.  The following month, the Soviets revealed their plan to keep some troops in the country more or less permanently and made Dubček and his group affirm the decision. The April 1969 meeting of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist party saw the resignation of Dubček and the ascension of Gustav Husák, who would become the figure-head of the “normalization” regime of the 1970s and ’80s.

Palach’s act thus occurred after the brutal Soviet invasion but before “normalization” began in earnest. It was thus a particularly tense time, with society not really adjusted to a post-invasion status quo and Czechoslovak leaders still wondering how much, if any, latitude the Soviets might allow. Some protests occurred in October and November after the invasion, led by university students and some trade unions. Some of this crucial backdrop is supplied by the film itself, with sounds and images of Western music combined with footage of Prague during the August invasion. More than one character also explicitly mentions the question of who and what is being manipulated by Moscow, with Czechoslovak apparatchiks expressing concern that they keep their own affairs in order to forestall further direct meddling from the Soviets.


In the film’s telling, Palach’s act was thus well-timed to exacerbate the anxieties of Czechoslovak Communist leaders. Indeed, Palach left a note that promised more self-immolations if two simple demands were not met: the abolition of censorship and the cease in publication of one propaganda organ called Zprávy. Palach referred to others ready and willing to take up the cause and ominously signed his letter “Torch No. 1.” The first part of the film captures the extremely tense atmosphere created by this mention of the possibility of Palach’s participation in a group with more willing “torches.” Palach died in the hospital on January 19. A remembrance march was held the following day and included tens of thousands, with a public viewing of the casket and funeral five days later. Part one of the film concludes with some actual footage of the memorial march and funeral.

We witness the investigation led by an honest, diligent policeman called Major Jireš. Jireš is unwilling to go further than the facts warrant, even when pushed and threatened by his superiors. By the end of the second episode, we see Jireš with his family in a car at the Austrian border. Though the border guard wishes his comrade a good vacation, the major’s nervous behavior suggests we are seeing an emigration. The Communist system cannot accommodate honest work and truth, and Jireš knows it.

I’ll come back to this film in other posts and explore the theme I raise above (relational nature and truth). Below is a photograph of a memorial at the spot where Palach’s self-immolation took place just below the steps of the National Museum.


Tags: Agnieszka Holland , Communism , Jan Palach , Totalitarianism on Screen

On Top of Piketty


History is repeating itself as farce. Fresh off the roaring success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century comes David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, which Chronicle of Higher Education senior writer Scott Carlson describes as a “distillation of Harvey’s 40-year study of Karl Marx” and “a bid to change the conversation about what’s not working and what’s possible—especially when many have consigned Marx to history’s dustbin.”

Marx, however, was never actually consigned to history’s dustbin. That was the fate of the unanimously murderous regimes that put his ideas into practice — and even that job is only partly completed. Venezuelans are still getting starved and beaten to a pulp in the name of 21st-century socialism, a movement that the late Hugo Chávez managed to export to Bolivia and Ecuador. Erstwhile Sandinista Daniel Ortega has been back fighting inequality in Nicaragua since 2007, mainly by keeping incomes flat over a period when incomes in comparable Latin American countries have grown by about half. For nearly 70 years, the Kim family’s juche spirit has been transforming North Korea into a bronze-age dynasty that has nuclear weapons but no consumer electricity.#ad#

When Western intellectuals herald the return of Marx, they’re not talking about these real-world examples of human suffering but about what really matters: cocktail-party discussions among Western intellectuals. There, Marx lite and Marx hardcore are doing great.

The English translation of Piketty’​s book is now in first place on the New York Times bestseller list, just ahead of redistributionist Senator Elizabeth Warren’​s A Fighting Chance and improbably topping a memoir by national treasure Diane Keaton, a biography of Duke Wayne, and other more-interesting-sounding books. Piketty emphatically states that he’​s not an anti-capitalist, but his 700-page argument for a global wealth tax serves as the erudite frosting on a confection of dumbed-down Communism that has already manifested in Occupy Wall Street and broadsides such as Nation writer Timothy Shenk’​s recent think piece on “​Marxist Millennials”​ (an article so long that nobody is sure whether the author has finished writing it).

There’​s also the widely praised print magazine Jacobin, which offers “socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture” and is named for Maximilien de Robespierre’​s cadre of French revolutionaries who introduced the words “guillotine” and “terrorism” to common parlance. Also out since the beginning of this year: the collection of essays Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA; Benjamin Kunkel’​s survey of contemporary leftists Utopia or Bust; and for light reading, Zizek’s Jokes from unwashed Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek.

This may seem like a trend, but Marx has never vanished from the academy. The stubborn refusal of applied Marxism to produce anything but mass murder merely led to efforts to reframe the philosophy. Through much of the 20th century, Marx was clearly the greatest economist of all time, but his ideas had never been properly put into practice. Then he might have dwindled as an economist but was indisputably an important historian. When that didn’​t pan out, Gramscian “cultural Marxism” allowed overwhelmed graduate students to avoid economics and history altogether in order to focus on Batman. When all else failed (and with Marxism, it always fails), Marx lived on through the claim that while his ideas may have faded, he was still an important figure of literature — a particular howler to anybody familiar with his clotted, vituperative, headache-inducing prose.

What has changed is not in the sphere of ideas — where Marx truly has nothing new to say — but in the sphere of government. The Democrats have decided that “inequality” is going to be their big campaign idea in November, and they may be on to something. Nearly five years after the putative end of the recession, 83 percent of Americans rate the country’​s economic conditions as “only fair” or “poor,” according to the most recent Pew Center for People & the Press survey; and 73 percent say conditions will be “the same” or “worse” in a year. The difference between respondents who think Republican policies would do more to strengthen the economy (43 percent) and those who prefer President Obama’s policies (39 percent) is not great. Despite wall-to-wall media claims of an economic recovery, two-thirds do not believe the economy is recovering fast enough and more than a fourth say it’s not recovering at all. The Obama jobs recovery is the worst since World War II, and probably the worst in the history of the United States. (Following the two severe recessions that made up the Great Depression, unemployment reduction was far more rapid than it has been since 2009; and while the economic history of the 19th century is largely ignored or fictionalized by modern macroeconomists, the recessions or “panics” of that era were typically sharp, deep, and followed by robust employment growth.) If ever there was a time to reintroduce Marx’s crabbed vocabulary about late capitalism and the inevitability of history, it’s now.

This is where resurgent leftists like Harvey come in. A professor of Marxist geography at City University of New York, Harvey hopes he can (as Marx would say) reify a few alien concepts in contemporary America:

Harvey, for his part, says that any revolution would have to start by “changing mental conceptions of what the good life is,” and that you do so in part by changing the language. Occupy started this work by defining the “1 percent.”

“We saw it in the civil-rights movement and in the gay-and-lesbian movement,” he says. “When you change the language, you can change the way people think and their mental conceptions. And when that changes, you can start to push in new politics.”

This drive to warp language has a distinguished Marxist pedigree. In fact, it was only through pushing perfectly good words to mean something other than what they mean that the patent falsehoods and obvious absurdities of Marxism became truths accepted even by anti-Marxists. Nobody who has ever had a cake fail to rise could believe in the labor theory of value. Marx’s own refutation of relative value, from which all of Das Kapital springs, won’t survive your first yard sale. The natural antagonism between labor and capital, source of all unionization and a vast body of U.S. law, is a Marxist verbal construct. Yet these ideas are all embedded in the public mind as physical reality, while the entirely empirical and commonsense philosophy of Adam Smith has been redefined as dogma.#ad#

The Chronicle’s Carlson depicts Harvey retrieving some of the most moth-eaten remnants from Marx’s sample kit while analyzing the problems besetting the city of Baltimore:

He sat on a university commission analyzing housing problems in the city, and in writing the report for city leaders, borrowed ideas from Das Kapital. He found resonance in Marx’s analysis of the conflict between use values (the value of, say, a home as shelter) and exchange values (its value as a property to buy and flip), and in the notion that capital moves problems around (as when blight and gentrification drift through neighborhoods) but never solves them. Harvey says the city leaders—no matter their politics—thought the report was perceptive. “I didn’t tell them I was getting it out of Marx,” he says. “The more it worked for me and worked for other people, the more confidence I got that this was not a crazy system, but was actually quite interesting.”

It would take a pretty devout effort of Marxian will to look at Baltimore’s manifold troubles and see in them an excess of an unbridled free-market thinking. Baltimore pioneered modern zoning codes in 1910, when the city’s progressive mayor J. Barry Mahool declared, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.” It’s not surprising that local political leaders welcomed the news that something other than their leadership was responsible for the city’s decline. Whole swaths of Charm City are as blighted as a late-Communist polity, and many of its boarded-up buildings are decorated with green “Vacants to Value” signs — which are not pitches from private-market flippers but part of a campaign by the city’s housing commissioner.

One of the distinguishing features of the new Marxists is this kind of support for the same forces they claim to oppose. The Occupy movement came and went without mounting any tea-party-style primary challenges against incumbent Democrats, who receive more Wall Street campaign contributions than Republicans do. The government’s use of force always enforces class inequality rather than alleviating it, a point recognized way back in the 1950s by the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Đilas in his great work The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (which the new Marxists have mysteriously declined to rediscover). Marx’s present-day acolytes are on track to make their perceived problems of capitalism worse.

By that token, Harvey is really off to the races. The Chronicle lists “degradation of the environment” and “curtailing of human freedom” along with class inequality among the free-market outrages he wants to fix. The record of human freedom in the gulag archipelago speaks for itself. But the worst man-made environmental catastrophes in history — including but not limited to the arctic atomic-waste dump, the destruction of the Aral Sea, Mao’s “four pests” disaster, and the full meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant (concealed for weeks by the “moderate” administration of Mikhail Gorbachev) — occurred under Communist regimes.#ad#

It’s tiresome to have to have to walk through this large field of settled history again. The Marxist Millennials at least have the excuses of callow youth, miseducation, and an upbringing of privilege unimaginable in any previous time period. But Harvey is 78, and presumably he didn’t have Boomer or X-er parents assuring him since birth of his specialness and effortless mastery of everything. Who, other than the newly thawed-out Austin Powers, could be in any confusion about where the Marxist road ends?

This is the point in the discussion where the Marxists object that the master’s ideas were never correctly implemented but hijacked by people they admit (usually under great duress) were knaves. But you can tell a lot about a system by the people it attracts, and it’s not a coincidence that Marxism’s most ambitious exponents were monsters like Stalin, Mao, and Nicolae Ceaușescu. You could as easily say Carl Schmitt was just unlucky that the Nazis took a shine to his ideas. When the flower is this horrible, what’s the likelihood that there was nothing wrong with the seed?

Defining the Soviet and Maoist states as failed experiments in social justice misses the point. They were attempts to put the essential violence of Marxism in motion, and they succeeded on a spectacular scale. Violence is not incidental to Marx. It’s there throughout his work, between attacks on “vampire capital” and “Jewish hucksterism.” Some samples:

“The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain.”

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

“The meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to socialism.”

“There is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”

“No great movement has ever been inaugurated without bloodshed.”

The new Marxists may object that they are not advocating violence, merely calling for a necessary counterbalance to the tyranny of mass murderers like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. But — on the very slim chance that they’re actually reading the original texts of the Grundrisse and On the Jewish Question for themselves — they’re like the teenagers who play around with an old book of incantations during an all-night party at a spooky house. The text is an indecipherable mass of meaningless hocus pocus, but it can still unleash dark forces beyond their control.

In his book The Anti-Capitalist Mentality (an un-Marxist work not only for its ideas but for coming in at a breezy and readable 70 pages), Ludwig von Mises ably describes the campus “anti-anticommunists” who aim for a “communism without those inherent and necessary features that are still unpalatable to Americans” and make an “illusory distinction” between communism and socialism.

“They think that they have proved their case by employing such aliases as planning or the welfare state,” Mises writes. “They pretend to reject the revolutionary and dictatorial aspirations of the ‘Reds’ and at the same time they praise in books and magazines, in schools and universities, Karl Marx, the champion of the communist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, as one of the greatest economists, philosophers and sociologists and as the eminent benefactor and liberator of mankind. They want us to believe that untotalitarian totalitarianism, a kind of triangular square, is the patent medicine for all ills.”

This is worth keeping in mind when Piketty distances himself from anti-capitalists and advises his followers to “read the history books.” In one sense it’s refreshing to have Harvey and the new Marxists put aside the euphemisms and say what they’re really about. But moderately bad ideas eventually end up in the same place as overtly bad ideas, and it’s alarming to see how popular these bad ideas remain a generation after the lesson of Marxism seemed to have been learned for good. Even the mixed, diluted, politically polluted version of a free market we have in America is so much better than all the alternatives that it’s easy to forget something: The “reforms” the equalitists have in mind have been tried in the past, and the result was always general immiseration. Capitalism, not Marxism, is the idea that has never been put into practice.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Tags: Communism

Maria Conchita Alonso: Commie Fighter


You don’t see this every day: A Hollywood actress and musician took to the streets of Washington Friday to demand U.S. government action — not to mandate carbon-neutral toilets or provide universal health care for cats, but to take on an autocratic socialist regime.

The Washington Post’s David Montgomery reports that Maria Conchita Alonso, appearing in front of the White House along with “hundreds of fired-up Venezuelan-Americans,” planted a big kiss on Old Glory while “holding her rescue Chihuahua Tequila.”

The Cuban-born, Venezuelan-raised pepperpot was demanding U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, exclaiming, “They’re going to kill me, those Communists!”

Conchita Alonso never quite made it to the A list, but she’s been in some good movies, including Paul Mazursky’s sadly forgotten Moscow On the Hudson, which was one of the best pro-western statements of the Cold War specifically because it eschewed ideological hawkery in favor of a sentimental/liberal celebration of American free markets, social laissez-faire and abundance. 

But the actress has been taking a harder line with Venezuela’s Bolivarian paradise. Montgomery reports:

She’s been an outspoken foe of late Hugo Chavez and his successor for years — remember her celebrated shouting match with Sean Penn in LAX in 2011? Penn has expressed support for the social goals of the Bolivarian Republic. In chummier times, the pair co-starred in the 1988 film “Colors.”

(For the record, Hugo Chávez’s successor is Nicolás Maduro, but I can sympathize with Montgomery’s not bothering to look it up; because really, who cares what his name is?)

The Post has some fun with Conchita Alonso’s fiery antics before specifying what the activists are hoping to achieve:

The crowd carried American and Venezuelan flags, and sang the sonorous Venezuelan national anthem, twice. They carried signs in English — “Sanction violators of human rights” — and chanted in Spanish — “Who are we? Venezuela! What do we want? Liberty!”

The sanctions bills would cut visas for certain officials and freeze assets.

“We don’t want to hurt our brothers down there,” [Demonstrator Ernesto] Ackerman said. “We want to get those sanctions to the people who are the dictators.”

It hasn’t been in the news much lately, but Venezuela’s enlightened 21st-century-socialist government is still doing what socialists do best: beating people up and arresting them.

Tags: Venezuela , Communism , Hollywood

Do NBC Sports Anchors Know Anything About Communism?


From the first Morning Jolt of the week:

Communism Was the Worst Mistake in Human History. Do NBC Sports Anchors Know This?

What you think depends upon what you know.

You’re a smart, well-read, well-educated audience. (And handsome, too!) When I say “Communism,” or more specifically, the “Soviet Union,” a lot probably comes to mind.

You may think of the occupation of Eastern Europe. Or the massive internal forced migrations. Or the Ukrainian famine, which killed 7 to 11 million people in a two-year period. Or the system of several hundred gulags and labor colonies, which imprisoned and in many cases killed 14 million people. Or the extensive, brutal, far-reaching and ruthless secret police, the KGB, the NKVD and others. Or the Katyn Massacre, killing about 22,000. The treatment of German civilians after World War Two. The deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear conflict in 1963. The KGB’s active support of terror groups around the world. The unprovoked invasion of Afghanistan. Or the shooting down of KAL 007. Or their callous attempt to cover up the catastrophic disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, not mentioning anything to the public for nearly three days.

I’m sure you can think of other glaring examples of the Soviet Union’s epic, unparalleled, brutal reign of terror over a large chunk of the globe for decades. The point is that a LOT comes immediately to mind.

Friday night’s opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sochi offered a ludicrously rewritten version of Russian history, in which some of humanity’s most bloody chapters were reimagined as Mardi Gras in Candyland.

I remember Red Square being more . . . red.

After a lot of agriculture and farming in a stage full of red representing what we usually think of as the Cold War, the program came to the late 1980s. At that moment, a little girl let go of a red balloon, symbolizing the end of the Soviet Union:

“A bittersweet moment,” declared NBC anchor Meredith Vieira.

And I lost it, needing to break character on Twitter from my persona of a staunchly loyal Russian apparatchik.

Can it really be that Vieira genuinely believes the end of the Soviet Union was a “bittersweet” moment? If one of Putin’s goons was in the booth with her, glaring at her menacingly with his hand on the grip of his silenced pistol, I’ll forgive her. Otherwise, this is may be the dumbest statement ever uttered on television, and mind you, this is the network that employs Chris Collinsworth.

Was she so sucked into the imagery — a girl is losing her balloon! — that she forgot what the whole thing was supposed to symbolize? If so, mission accomplished, Vladimir Putin. The end of the Soviet Union — which Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” — has now been transmogrified into a sad passing of a simpler, happier era.

A lot of folks jumped on Bob Costas for an unidentified NBC narrator referring to communism as “one of modern history’s pivotal experiments,” and that deserves its own rebuke. But the problem with that is that it’s a bloodless, anodyne phrase, designed to avoid offending the hosts. Vieira’s comment was worse because it suggested there was something sad about the greatest retreat of oppression in modern history. The phrase “pivotal experiments” is cowardly in its unwillingness to judge, but “bittersweet” is worse because it’s the inverse, saluting the oppressor and lamenting his departure.

Costas is currently suffering from pinko-eye — er, excuse me, pinkeye — and Vieira apparently fell in a toilet, so maybe the poor choice of words represented some sort of health-related mental lapse. I can’t be surprised that the Russians are airbrushing their history with wind-tunnel force, trying to persuade themselves that the years of the A-bomb, the Korean War, Soviet troops crushing the uprising in Hungary, etc., mostly looked like Mad Men with a different color palette.

That’s Putin’s Russia being Putin’s Russia, and we’re naïve if we expected otherwise. But NBC, the first “N” in your name is “National.” As in “Nation.” You’re ours, not theirs, and that means you’re free to call them as you see them. Just because they put on ludicrously inaccurate propaganda in amongst some genuinely impressive singing, dancing, and floor projections doesn’t mean you have to nod in agreement to the propaganda.

Tags: Olympics , Russia , Communism

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