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A Couple of Things

with 4 comments

It’s a weird day on a lot of levels.  Trust me.

But there are points.

The first is that I don’t think people like Chambers were interested in workers’ pensions or unemployment insurance.

When I said this was a book about a religious conversion, I meant it.  What Chambers was looking for was salvation, a permanent end to a certain kind of evil–for equality of condition (not just “of outcomes”), period, across the board, and to control of work and working conditions in the hands of the people who did the work.  Or at least the manual and skilled trades work.

And he was looking for that because he honestly thought that things could not get better by simple evolution.  Instead, he was convinced that not only were things bad–and they were very bad, even in the Twenties, for certains classes of people–but that they could only get worse, because the internal logic of the economic system as it was then constituted would force them to get worse.

Second, Chambers not only knew all about the show trials, he knew they were show trials.  It was the fellow travelers and sympathizers who were deluded or self-deluded on that point.  Actual working members of the Party knew what was going on and why. 

They just thought it was justified.  They did not hold free elections, for instance, to be of any value.  They were not looking for democracy, and they did not accept rights, individual or otherwise, as we understand them. 

What seems to us to be scandalous and an obvious sign that we would have to abandon this particular cause meant nothing to them on a moral level.  Chambers was exasperated by what he felt were heavy handed tactics and unnecessary factionalism, but he also thought that the Party was the only possible organ for society’s redemption (as defined above) and that leaving it would not do any good and might do a lot of harm to his own long term goals.

But even complaining about how, in the Sixties, they “should have known” has a few problems.

Part of it is that it’s really amazing how little people do know, even know. 

Part of it is in the assumption that, had they known, they would have disapproved, or found those conditions unacceptable. 

Party members were not, and are not, liberals.  They’re not even socialists if we understand the term as what’s going on in Sweden. 

The book is interesting precisely for this reason–that Chambers does not try to pretend to be a liberal, he doesn’t pretend to have valued (at the time) elections or free speech or any of that, he instead gives a portrait of himself as he actually was, and a portrait of the Party in the US as it actually was.

And still is, for all I know.

For active Party members, complaining that they “should have known” there was no free speech, and no free elections, the the Soviet Union was pointless.  They did know.  They just didn’t think it was important.

In a way, they are the least interesting people in this movement–they are committed believers, their belief is both about the nature of reality now and the possible nature of reality in the future, and they don’t compromise.

The fellow travelers and sympathizers a more of a puzzle, because they did value things like elections and free speech, and went ahead anyway.

And no, after the show trials, I don’t think they could have avoided knowing what was going on if they’d wanted to know.

When we get down to today, of course, things are a lot more complicated, or a lot more murky.  Nobody believes in the coming Communist paradise any more. 

But a lot of people do still believe that the economic system that now exists is inherently corrupt, evil and unjust.

On the other hand, there is politics as fashion, and that’s something else again.

I’ve got to go teach.

Written by janeh

September 10th, 2010 at 6:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'A Couple of Things'

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  1. This is one of the things I got out of Short’s bio of Mao. Mao does appear to have been originally inspired by a desire to improve the truly horrific conditions in China when he was a young man. But he also believed firmly that violent revolution was absolutely essential to attain the Marxist paradise. Not only that, he thought repeated, periodic revolutions were necessary to purify the people and correct their thinking – unlike some other dictators, even Communist ones, he wasn’t satisfied if people were obedient, he wanted them to think ‘correctly’. And he considered the death and suffering of millions to be a perfectly reasonable cost for carrying out this essential step on the path to the perfect society. There seems to have been no idea among the elite that there was a moral problem with inflicting suffering on other humans – often merely because of what class they happened to be in, or because they happened to be handy when their superiors were instructed to find a certain percentage of deviant thinkers in the ranks. China, of course, had a long history of extreme internal violence, especially in the war-torn decades preceding and during WW II, but the Communists used it to shape society, not to punish criminals or solely to try to take or keep political power. I don’t think I had fully appreciated the Communist idea that violence is an absolutely essential part of social change. I’d always vaguely assumed that they regarded it as a regrettable necessity.


    10 Sep 10 at 7:05 am

  2. I suspect Chambers is accurate and truthful on thee points, but it’s worth pointing out that other ex-Communist memoirs often insist they were ignorant of the true state of affairs–and that the public face of the Communist Party WAS insisting that the Soviet Union was delivering precisely the “workers’ benefits” type of reform, that there was no famine and no Gulag, and that the victims of the show trials were real counter-revolutionaries.
    I also don’t entirely buy off on the innocent, gulible fellow-traveller. Those were, after all, the base from which the CPUSA was recruited, and few of them seem to have recoiled in horror when the curtain was drawn back. People can be remarkably ignorant, even in a literate age–but to be THAT ignorant about a subject of great importance to the fellow travellers takes serious effort–or natural talent.

    The Venona material is interesting in this regard. It’s sideways to their main points, but Haynes & Klehr in VENONA point out that while not every Communist or fellow-traveller approached by the Soviet espionage apparatus agreed to spy for them–but there is not a single instance of a Party member of fellow traveller alerting the US authorities.

    As for the great goals of Communism, I can only recommend C. Northcote Parkinson’s LEFT LUGGAGE. Not to do him justice, he points out that a system intended to establish equality and place decisions on working conditions in the hands of the workers, but which intends to do this by means of a self-appointed undemocratic cadre claiming superior understanding has an inherent problem.


    10 Sep 10 at 4:00 pm

  3. I never read “Left Luggage” but I recall reading a comment along the lines of “What would you expect when the government is the only employer, the only landlord, the only source of supplies and the only source of news?”

    I’ve always been puzzled that people who pointed to the evils of company towns would support the idea of “company countries.”


    10 Sep 10 at 7:36 pm

  4. Hello, Canberra until relatively recently.


    11 Sep 10 at 12:40 am

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