Consequentialism and communism

by Chris Bertram on November 4, 2009

Fred Halliday writes, as part of a (not unsympathetic) twenty-year retrospective on communism:

… underpinning these three ideas – “state”, “progress”, “revolution” – lay a key component of this legacy: the lack of an independently articulated ethical dimension. True, there was a supposedly ethical dimension – whatever made for progress, crudely defined as winning power for a party leadership, and gaining power for a, mythified, working class – was defended. However, the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion. That many of those who continue to uphold revolutionary-socialist ideals, and the potential of Marxist theory, today appear not to have noticed this, that they indeed reject, when not scorn, the concept of “rights”, is an index of how little they have learned, or have noticed the sufferings of others.

There is a difficulty, or at least, so it seems to me, in making this point as part of a diagnosis of what was wrong with the communist movement in particular. It is that the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals (or even in the name of “progress” broadly conceived) has usually characterized communism’s enemies and competitors too. Consequentialism was the dominant philosophy of government pretty much everywhere throughout the twentieth century.

{ 138 comments }

1

Sebastian 11.04.09 at 5:49 pm

“It is that the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals (or even in the name of “progress” broadly conceived) has usually characterized communism’s enemies and competitors too.”

I would at the very least quibble with “the very same disregard for….”

As applied to Communism (it isn’t fair to say the same about all forms of socialism) it really doesn’t seem to be the very same kind of consequentialism. Or if it is the same ‘kind’ it is a vastly different degree of that kind of consequentialism.

Among communism’s opponents, there was a tension which was seen between defending ourselves against communism and the rights of individuals and citizens in general. That tension was much less evident, if present at all, in Communist countries.

I would argue that the philosophical tension didn’t exist in Communism–the rights of individuals and citizens in general as we think of them just don’t exist under Communism. But if you want to, I suppose you could argue that Communist countries are just MUCH further to the authoritarian side on some consequentialist spectrum. But if you want to make that argument, it doesn’t help to frame it as “the very same disregard”, because the degree of the disregard is so vastly different.

The difference between East and West Germany was very real and very stark for more than 40 years. And that was a very basic experiment–same country, different regime. The difference between the USSR proper and Western Europe was very real. The difference between China and Japan was very real. The difference between South and North Korea is very real. You would have to look very hard to find a case with even a close comparison. Maybe Pinochet’s first 2/3 in Chile (say 73-85 which were awful by Western standards) compared to Castro’s Cuba after his grip on power became more diffuse (say post 1990, after the fall of the rest of Communism). And frankly, you still have homosexuals and journalists in camps in Cuba.

2

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 6:09 pm

Oh dear, Sebastian. The point of the post was not to say that East Germany and West Germany were equally bad, or anything remotely similar. It is perfectly possible for eastern and western consequentialists to produce different results because of different _factual beliefs_ about what would maximize the good, _not_ because of different underlying normative commitments.

As for the lip service paid to individual rights by many Western governments, that is (a) irrelevant if the justification for those rights is a consequentialist one – so that they can be sacrificed for a large enough benefit and (b) belied by many actions of Western governments towards foreigners, enemy non-combatants, and colonial peoples (your mention of “citizens” is instructive). Further, your remark about of differences in degree puts me in mind of George Bernard Shaw’s remarks about haggling over the price.

(Incidentally, homosexuality was legalized in Cuba in 1979.)

3

Peter H 11.04.09 at 6:10 pm

Chris,

I’m not sure that consequentialism was the dominant philosophy of government virtually everywhere during the 20th century. Sure, no 20th century government would say that consequences of policies are morally irrelevant, but that’s hardly the litmus test for consequentialism. Everybody who’s not loopy thinks that consequences are morally relevant. What makes you think that consequentialism was a dominant philosophy of government?

Or are you just talking about in the academy?

4

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 6:18 pm

Peter, what public philosophy do you think was espoused by all the civil servants who took PPE at Oxford? And by generations of colonial administrators in the British empire? Why was “consequentialism” Anscombe’s target in her “Modern Moral Philosophy” and (for that matter) Rawls’s in A Theory of Justice? And what conception of policy was behind Curtis Lemay’s thinking? Or Harry Truman’s decision about Hiroshima?

Of course I could go on, but you see the point I’m sure.

5

kid bitzer 11.04.09 at 6:21 pm

and cf. bernard williams’ line about “government house utilitarianism”.

which of course stands refuted by the fact that it was never the official policy of any government house. and that’s a matter of public record.

6

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 6:22 pm

Incidentally, none of this is _necessarily_ an argument against consequentialism, as such. It is an argument against the idea that the distinctive badness of communism is explicable by its consequentialist commitments.

7

Sebastian 11.04.09 at 6:37 pm

“Further, your remark about of differences in degree puts me in mind of George Bernard Shaw’s remarks about haggling over the price.”

I’m sure it does, but that doesn’t make it pertinent. Degrees of difference really do matter in almost any non-academic exercise.

“The point of the post was not to say that East Germany and West Germany were equally bad, or anything remotely similar. It is perfectly possible for eastern and western consequentialists to produce different results because of different factual beliefs about what would maximize the good, not because of different underlying normative commitments.”

Yes that is perfectly ‘possible’ but you haven’t really done much to suggest that it is correct.

You call Western attention to individual rights ‘lip service’, but the record suggests that it was more than lip service. Western German citizens really did have more individual rights than East Germans. And my mention of ‘citizen’ is not particularly instructive. We can argue about how much nations ought to value non-citizens, but at the very minimum they ought to value their own citizens. Communist nations pretty much didn’t. I don’t see how you can dismiss that as: you’re clearly a prostitute now we’re just haggling over the price.

The point of Halliday’s argument is that Communism doesn’t even try to restrain itself by what we see as traditional tensions between government and individual. And that ends up really being awful for individuals.

And your 1979 quip about Cuba and homosexuality is grossly misleading. Public Scandal laws after that still allowed vicious government persecution of homosexuals in Cuba. Detention centers were set up for homosexuals with HIV and were mandatory in the 1980s (which would be after your 1979 date). Even as recently as 2004 the BBC was reporting formal crackdowns. (See also the documentary “Improper Conduct” for Castro’s treatment of gay men when he was at the height of his power).

8

mpowell 11.04.09 at 6:40 pm

I don’t think I agree with CB on this point. It’s just not the case that a democratic regime has an identifiable philosophy that you can dissect as consequentialist or not. Whatever western governments claimed as the justification for their actions, I think voters weighed many of those policies on the basis of whether they were fair to the people they affected (this only applies to integrated and accepted portions of the domestic population, of course). Obviously the voters don’t represent any real philosophical commitments, but I think a broadly democratic government makes it much more difficult to pursue strictly consequentialist policy. That seems like it might have made a big part of the difference between communists and the west. Generally speaking, there is a very difficult problem in deciding whether to evaluate political movements on the basis of their academic commitments versus the consequences of their political ascendancy. But it’s certainly not fair to criticize the west based on political actions while comparing those to the academic commitments of communism. Because I don’t see what is so consequentialist about the philosophical underpinnings of western governments. And you can’t dismiss off hand the possibility that a lack of commitment to individual rights led to worse outcomes for communist inspired political movements.

9

Hidari 11.04.09 at 6:47 pm

The Fred Halliday piece seems to me to be badly flawed by his inability (or unwillingness) to define ‘communism’ to begin with. The inevitable result is that it ends up meaning ‘things I don’t like about stuff’ (whereas for the communist, it ends up meaning ‘things I like’).

Take this sentence.

‘As even sympathisers like Rosa Luxemburg realised in 1917 itself, it was bound from the beginning to fail. ‘

Now what Halliday means here is ‘Bolshevism’ which is of course a very different thing. As is rather well known, Luxemburg disliked Lenin and Leninism (for good reasons). And she certainly thought that Germany was not ready for a Communist revolution at the end of WW1. But it is simply false to say that Rosa Luxemburg thought that ‘it’ (by which Halliday means ‘Communism’) was bound to fail.

But then by the next paragraphy we are talking about the whole Communist tradition, stemming from Marx.

‘It is common, and somewhat too easy, for defenders of Marxism in the contemporary world to argue that Marxist theory and communist practice were divergent, and that, hence, the theory bears no responsibility for the communist record. If by this question is meant whether another Marxism, a more liberal or “genuine” or “democratic” one, or, if you incline in the other direction, a more resolute, militant, disciplined one, could have prevented the collapse of the communist states then the answer is no. ‘

So, in this reading, ‘liberal’ Marxism is a contradiction in terms.

But then, suddenly, in the paragraph after that….

‘There were certainly, throughout its seventy-year history, choices for the Soviet system:…’

So, we are back to talking about Leninism and Stalinism again.

If one reads through the article carefully one sees that in its concrete criticisms, it is aimed at Leninism and Leninism only. Now this is a critique common in the revolutionary left tradition (indeed, Luxemburg was one of the first to make it). But Halliday uses this to damn the entire Communist tradition.

Or to put it another way, with concrete examples.

Recently, revolutionary communists have been voted in in Nepal. Communists have also been voted in in Cyprus and Moldavia. Of course, there would have been a lot more communists voted in to power all over the world had the United States not ceaselessly and tirelessly worked to prevent such an event ever taking place.

The point is: Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao…terrible leaders, who produced terrible things: concentration camps, mass terror, genocide, you name it. But when communists come to power peacefully none of these things happen.

And yet Halliday would I think when this is pointed out use the ‘One True Scotsman’ argument and argue that ‘these aren’t really communist governments’.

Communists can’t win. When they are prevented from coming to power by the United States, it’s the ‘lesser of two evils’. When they come to power democratically and are then toppled by the US (Allende) the in question country is being ‘saved’ from Stalinism. And yet when such democratically elected governments win power, are not toppled, and yet do not turn into Stalinist regimes, ‘they aren’t really communist’!

10

Chris 11.04.09 at 6:49 pm

the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals (or even in the name of “progress” broadly conceived) has usually characterized communism’s enemies and competitors too.

The 19 people who sacrificed their individual lives (not to mention their targets’ lives) for a cause on September 11 weren’t consequentialists. (And I doubt they had a burning commitment to the rights of individuals, either.) They were fervent believers in the granddaddy of deontological ethical systems, divine command theory.

So it’s not even about consequentialism, really, is it?

ISTM that willingness to sacrifice lives for a cause, and to revere people who consent to having their lives sacrificed for a cause, is a human trait that has little to do with particular ethical systems. Nearly all end up justifying it one way or another.

Communism can’t be particularly blamed for this any more than any other human society that does the same thing, which is basically all of them.

P.S. I don’t think communism has any distinctive badness. It is often imposed as a dictatorship or something like it (or, if you prefer, dictators sometimes pay lip service to communism as an attempt to justify their continued rule), and sometimes maintained by zealous suppression of dissent, and then it has the generic badness of each of those things; but other than that, then what?

11

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 6:57 pm

mpowell: Of course I’m tempted to respond that your post provides good consequentialist reasons to espouse both democracy and to protect individual rights (and Sen’s work on famines would support that). But I did intend a stronger thesis, namely that the sort of means-end reasoning that let to utter moral catastrophe in the USSR is also a pervasive (indeed the dominant) feature of the thinking of Western governments. I very much doubt that any of us would enjoy immunity from arbitrary arrest, torture, etc. if our governments believed such powers necessary for the public good. Aren’t we lucky that, for the most part, they don’t?

12

JoB 11.04.09 at 7:06 pm

Only that mpowell has it right of course. Communism doesn’t allow democracy where democracy really allows many ideologies. So the case of Western governments which go the route of the USSR is kinda misleading (and the fact is that they didn’t).

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.04.09 at 7:17 pm

Completely agree with the post: every political ideology (oh, fine, except the most radical brands of libertarianism) is consequentialist. Simple as that.

14

Cole Newcastle 11.04.09 at 7:17 pm

The problem is less consequentialism than expediency.
A consequentialist thinking log term may defend the exclusionary rule in US law (rendering inadmissible evidence gathered by illegal means) but another, thinking short term, may not.

It’s simpler to see the failure of communism as being the demand that everyone join the priesthood.

15

Peter H 11.04.09 at 7:20 pm

Chris @ 4,

If we’re talking solely about the academy, then yes, I definitely agree with you.

But you don’t seem to be talking solely about the academy. I’m just not sure if the politicians/governments you mention were consequentialists. Yes, Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima was consequence *sensitive* (in that Truman presumably thought that not dropping the bomb would have disastrous consequences), but a consequence-sensitive ethic is not the same as a consequentialist ethic. “Avoid disasters” is not equivalent to “maximise the good”.

I don’t have a firm view on whether governments in the 20th century were consequentialist or not (I’m not enough of a historian), though I’d tentatively say that they were not and were rather consequence-sensitive deontologists of one stripe or another. In any case, it seems to me that you haven’t done the work here to establish that the governments (ie. not the academics, which I agree with you about) had anything other than a consequence-sensitive ethic.

(of course, I agree with you that Halliday’s criticism of 20th century socialism is hardly one that can be levelled exclusively at 20th century socialism)

16

Peter H 11.04.09 at 7:21 pm

Henri Vieuxtemps @ 13,

Nonsense. Consequentialists believe that the right action is that which maximises the good. Plenty of political ideologies don’t hold that to be true. Rawls, for example. Unless you think that Rawls was a lunatic libertarian …

17

Sebastian 11.04.09 at 7:21 pm

I wonder if ‘consequentialism’ isn’t a red herring in this discussion. Halliday writes “However, the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion.”

He isn’t saying here that Communist governments were consequentialist and Western governments were not. He is saying that Communist governments did not have a very important ethical component in their consequentialist calculus, and that this deficit caused horrific outcomes. And that is where degrees come in: either the Communist value on individuals and citizens in general is zero, or it is much much less than that of the Western regimes at the time. And that is a distinction with a difference.

18

geo 11.04.09 at 7:24 pm

if the justification for those rights is a consequentialist one – so that they can be sacrificed for a large enough benefit

I suspect the question of the philosophical foundations (if any) of ethics has already been thoroughly argued on Crooked Timber. If so (or perhaps for other reasons), this comment may be ignored. But consequentialism seems to me a null hypothesis: there is simply no other intelligible reason for adopting any rule of conduct except that you think it will be best, on the whole, for everyone affected. This is obvious in the case of lying to a deranged murderer or Gestapo man. The rule then is something like: lying is always wrong, because it makes human intercourse difficult or impossible, except when the consequences plainly dictate ignoring the rule. Nothing but consequences anywhere in sight.

Moving to a less obvious case: is it all right to slaughter one helpless infant (or millions of stubborn kulaks) to bring about a socialist utopia? Well, if the certain result of slaughtering them will be to eliminate all needless suffering for the trillions (we hope) of humans who will live after us, for ever and ever, then I’d be inclined to. But a moment’s reflection is enough to make clear to anyone not blinded by passion or self-interest that starving or shooting a great many peasants and poets has very little chance (much less — in fact, infinitely less — a certainty) of producing eternal happiness on earth. As Dewey pointed out in reply to Trotsky’s “Their Morals and Ours” (I’m paraphrasing), the Bolsheviks hadn’t a clue about how to eliminate all needless suffering for ever and ever, and probably didn’t give a fig, since they were just trying to save their necks. The same with all other mass murderers: no careful and disinterested calculation of consequences, only blind passion or self-interest. Which is why a belief in inviolable rights wouldn’t help in the slightest: you have to be in exactly the same frame of mind, or soul, to disinterestedly calculate consequences as to respect inviolable rights.

19

mpowell 11.04.09 at 7:25 pm

CB: Since you are still talking about what ‘our governments believe’ perhaps I should try to make my point in a different way. First of all, ‘governments’ don’t believe anything. People gain political power and then they enact political policies. The broader the political power base and the more robust the tradition of democratic government in a society is, the more difficult it is to pass policy that has dire consequences for large numbers of individuals in the society. Yeah, you might be able to scare enough Americans into thinking the right thing for them is dire restrictions on their civil liberties, but it is a lot easier thing to do if the only people you have to convince is a few elites to whom those policies will not really apply. We can have a discussion as to whether or not seeing democracy as a good thing for this reason is consequentialist or not, but that is not really the point. If I were to try to sum up the best point that I think Halliday could make it is that violent revolutionary movements, especially those centered around ideologies rather than consensus, will tend to do really bad things if they come to power and a large part of that is because when your political movement is centered around ideological justification instead of democratic legitimacy it does not evince a lot of respect for individual rights. This is a critique that should be aimed at Leninism instead of, say, random communist parties willing to play by the rules of democracy, but it is still a valid point, I think. Maybe we shouldn’t call this consequentialism, because it sounds like something else to me. But I think it’s very relevant that democratic legitimacy is an important part of the western political tradition.

20

geo 11.04.09 at 7:34 pm

A follow-up to my previous comment (languishing in moderation thanks to an unguarded mention of “soc1alism”). Chris writes: I very much doubt that any of us would enjoy immunity from arbitrary arrest, torture, etc. if our governments believed such powers necessary for the public good. The “public good” is as mischievous a fiction as the “national interest” (currently being pummelled on Henry’s “International Law II” thread). If an arrest (or, I would say, a bout of torture) would certainly prevent excruciating suffering for billions of innocent people, then it begs the question to call it “arbitrary.” The reason we have the “rights” against arrest and torture that we do is that our collective evaluation of all human experience goes to show that arresting people at random does not certainly prevent (and in fact, has no tendency in the slightest to prevent) any suffering at all of innocent people.

21

JoB 11.04.09 at 7:34 pm

And why does Cuba get away with lots of things ‘because it could be worse’? If all what matters is legalizing homosexuality, why put pressure on Obama for gay rights?

PS: I think Rawls’ point was that one could allow consequentialism for some time – just like one could allow comprehensive doctrines up to some point – as long as some basic stuff was met democracy would prevail because it is what people wanted given enough education and enough free exchange of ideas

22

Billikin 11.04.09 at 7:41 pm

As long as you have thought police (official or unofficial), you will have oppression. In the U. S. that means being attacked from the Left for not being Politically Correct or from the Right for not being a Real American.

23

John Quiggin 11.04.09 at 7:43 pm

The Communist viewpoint rejects consequentialism in much the same way as Rawls maximin argument for the difference prinicple. In both cases, the crucial claim is that some consequences (outcomes for the worst-off, the achievement of socialism) are such as to trump all others (improvements in the welfare of those who aren’t worst off, casualties of the revolutionary process).

Certainly, given the actual consequences of Communism (however defined), its advocates don’t look like consequentialists in retrospect.

24

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.04.09 at 7:44 pm

Rawls is tricky, but come on: isn’t it just a question of what your definition of “the good” is?

25

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 7:45 pm

George (#20), no, it wouldn’t be a question of a particular arrest, would it? Rather, a politician might argue that disaster will ensue if we “tie the hands” of law enforcement. But once those hands are untied, there will be plenty of arbitrary arrests.

26

Fred 11.04.09 at 7:49 pm

A sufficiently bland or flexible sense of “consequentialism” can be stretched to cover most reasonable political philosophies, but this doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the argument that some regimes, and some philosophies, care less for individual rights than others. We do not see, in many of communism’s enemies, “the very same disregard for, or skepticism about, the rights of individuals,” and an attempt to shove a commitment to liberalism and individual rights entirely into the category of “factual beliefs about what would maximize the good” could succeed, but would also force the difference in values into a difference in factual beliefs. This simply avoids facing the real argument. Whether or not Western governments’ criteria about “the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion” were the products of “factual beliefs” or “normative commitments,” they were qualitatively different from those practiced by communists.

27

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 7:53 pm

#23 John Q. No that doesn’t seem right to me, the fact that the good that they took themselves to be pursuing had a certain content, doesn’t seem to me to impugn their consequentialism.

28

Chris 11.04.09 at 7:54 pm

I very much doubt that any of us would enjoy immunity from arbitrary arrest, torture, etc. if our governments believed such powers necessary for the public good. Aren’t we lucky that, for the most part, they don’t?

I’m curious: what country do you presently live in?

As a resident of the U.S., I’m quite aware that I don’t enjoy immunity from those things as anything other than a polite legal fiction, and that other individuals in the same country have in fact been subjected to them. It is probabilistically unlikely that I will be targeted, which is better than nothing, but I am by no means satisfied with that.

I also think that Sebastian @17 is probably right about consequentialism being a red herring here. The original quote’s complaint is not really that communism was consequentialist, but that it weighted individual lives too lightly relative to society-wide interests, thus arriving at an allegedly greater-than-normal willingness to sacrifice individual lives. There’s quite a lot that could be said about that, but ISTM that nearly all of it would have to be said within a consequentialist framework.

29

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.04.09 at 7:59 pm

Monday, November 2, 2009

“THERE IS NO Freestanding Constitutional ‘Right Not To Be Framed.’ ” So states a brief filed by Iowa prosecutors hoping to persuade the Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit against them for allegedly fabricating evidence that led to the 25-year incarceration of two innocent men.

30

Natilo Paennim 11.04.09 at 8:02 pm

Let’s take this out of the realm of the speculative and hypothetical. The Soviet Union’s constitution guaranteed the whole panoply of civil rights. Obviously, it wasn’t enforced. Similarly, the US Constitution guarantees a broad array of rights, and yet these have never been universally (or even broadly, in some cases) available to the citizenry. The experiences of the Guantanamo and secret Gulag prisoners, the AETA 4 and SHAC 7 defendants and the millions harmed by the Drug War (to give but a few examples) are all testament to the fact that regardless of the philosophical underpinnings of a given code, the potential for grave abuse and perversion of justice and philosophy remains. For the most part, the people commenting here are, indeed, part of the social elite (or at the very least the petit bourgeoisie who ape the manners and mores of their betters), and this discussion, therefore, approaches Kafkaesque irony and Arendtian banality with increasing rapidity.

31

Matt Stevens 11.04.09 at 8:04 pm

To me (a non-philosopher) any discussion of consequentialism and politics brings to mind Max Weber’s distinction between “ethics of responsibility” and “ultimate ends.” Statecraft inevitably involves violence, ethically compromising participants from Day One, and when one wields enormous power, refusing to further the public good in the name of a broader principle (e.g., Herbert Hoover’s inaction during the Depression) seems perverse. So I can understand why consequentialism is the de facto (if not always de jure) justification for state actions.

32

mpowell 11.04.09 at 8:16 pm

29: When your ‘elite’ comprising something approaching a majority of the public, you are talking about a different kind of society then Lenin style communism. I don’t know why these discussions always get sidetracked into pointing that yes, as much as political liberties are trammeled in the United States there is still a difference with significance between what you have here and what you had in the USSR, but the difference is there and we are really talking about why it exists.

33

geo 11.04.09 at 8:26 pm

Chris @25: a politician might argue that disaster will ensue if we “tie the hands” of law enforcement.

But haven’t we (I mean human society) already had this discussion? Every society has rules about when an arrest is justified. Those rules are arrived at over the course of an open-ended collective conversation about how to balance the risk of failing to restrain law-breakers (ie, “tying the hands of the police”) against the risk of unfairly inconveniencing law-abiders (eg, by arresting them). Once we make that decision (and again, we do so by imagining and weighing consequences), we define the relevant “rights” accordingly. That’s how rights come into being, and they’re subject to redefinition if our collective expectation or evaluation of the consequences of having just those rights changes.

34

Phil 11.04.09 at 8:31 pm

The reason we have the “rights” against arrest and torture that we do is that our collective evaluation of all human experience goes to show that arresting people at random does not certainly prevent (and in fact, has no tendency in the slightest to prevent) any suffering at all of innocent people.

That’s a consequentialist argument for fundamental rights, which is an odd beast – and vulnerable to the argument that we just haven’t tried hard enough. As a thought experiment, imagine a police force which was empowered to arrest, and detain indefinitely, absolutely anyone it wanted to. And imagine that resources were no object – any time they looked like running out of prison cells, the government would just requisition and convert some handy warehouse. And imagine (this is a thought experiment, so I can be as arbitrary as I like) that this police force was staffed entirely by incorruptible Elliot Ness types who genuinely wanted to Stop Crime.

Let this run for a year. Are you quite sure that a year of arresting people at random would have had no tendency in the slightest to prevent any suffering at all of innocent people?

35

Hidari 11.04.09 at 8:36 pm

I think Sebastian is right, Halliday isn’t talking about consequentialism here. But, insofar as his arguments have force, again, they fail because they don’t make clear what he is arguing against.

‘“However, the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion.”’

This must mean, to make sense, ‘in its Bolshevik form’, not ‘especially in its Bolshevik form’ (although even then it’s highly arguable). It is simply false to say that ‘communism’ (let alone ‘socialism’) over the last 200 years lacks an ethical dimension, or that it does not have any criteria relating to the use of violence and coercion.

It’s true that some forms of Marxism has been highly critical of the doctrine of ‘rights’ but that’s a very different issue.

36

geo 11.04.09 at 9:21 pm

Excellent questions, Phil. To which I’d answer: 1) Yes, I overstated for effect. Statistically, arrest enough people at random and one of them will be a law-breaker who wouldn’t otherwise have been arrested. But this is a tiny effect and doesn’t impeach the rule. 2) The amount of suffering to innocent people generated by this random-arrest policy would exceed by many orders of magnitude the suffering prevented by apprehending that one or two lawbreakers caught accidentally. 3) We don’t and never will have a police force of Eliot Nesses because the police force is a (very approximate) reflection of the population, and a population righteous enough to produce a police force of Eliot Nesses wouldn’t need a police force. 4) We need rules; we can’t have the whole collective conversation all over again in every situation. In other words, resources of every kind — time, energy, good will, money — are always an object.

37

John Quiggin 11.04.09 at 9:22 pm

#27 Chris, I’ll try to restate with a consequentialist argument against revolution, taken from this old post.

Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before. Even where revolution is successful, attempts by the revolutionary party to hold on to power usually lead to reactionary dictatorship in short order. The French Revolution, the model on which Marxist analysis was based, lasted five years from liberation of the Bastille to Thermidor, and ten years to the 18 Brumaire seizure of power by Napoleon. The Bolshevik revolution lasted four years until the adoption of the New Economic Policy and seven years before Stalin’s rise to power. The successful revolutions have mostly been those where the ancien regime collapsed under its own weight, and where those who came to power did not try too hard to hold on to it when, inevitably, the wheel of public support turned against them.

A serious consequentialist would have taken the likelihood of failure, or of a Bonapartist reaction, before launching a revolution, and in fact most of those who adhered to a standard Marxist analysis drew the conclusion that revolution was premature in the Russia of 1917. The Bolsheviks (or more precisely the Leninists) were distinguished by their willingness to go ahead, regardless of the consequences.

38

StevenAttewell 11.04.09 at 9:23 pm

Sebastian:

I would take issue with the idea that “communism’s enemies and competitors” means the same thing as “the West.” Because that label could also apply itself to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America, imperialist/white-only regimes in Africa, to say nothing of Fascist Italy and Germany.

39

JoB 11.04.09 at 9:42 pm

38 – except that the original post(er) clearly included the West.

40

Sebastian 11.04.09 at 9:54 pm

StevenAttewell: I definitely think we should try to distguish between competitors like Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy and “The West” in this discussion. However I’m perfectly willing to admit that Pinochet belongs in the discussion.

41

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 10:05 pm

John Q. Well of course you’re right. But then, one can be a consequentialist and have diastrously false beliefs about the probably consequences of your actions … c.f. the Iraq war.

42

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 10:13 pm

Sebastian (#17) You have a point, but I don’t think you state it very well. You run together the weight communists attached to _rights_ and the value they placed on people, and those aren’t the same thing. _Stalin_ almost certainly placed no value on people’s lives or welfare, but that clearly wasn’t true for most communists. What is true is that they thought of the notion of inviolable “rights” as so much bourgeois nonsense.

43

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.04.09 at 10:22 pm

the rights of individuals and citizens in general as we think of them just don’t exist under Communism

In respect to some rights, as we think of them, that’s true. But then the opposite is also true – in respect to some other rights – as they think of them: the right to work, to medical care, a year of paid maternity leave, etc.

Different priorities, different definition of “the good”, that’s all.

44

John Quiggin 11.04.09 at 10:33 pm

Chris, my thinking about these issues has been very much affected by the Iraq war. While there was a consequentialist case for the Iraq war (Saddam will soon have nukes that can reach us in 45 minutes, and the invasion will produce a prosperous democracy) it was obviously flimsy from the start, and falsified beyond serious doubt quite early on.

Anyone without a strong prior belief in the goodness of Bush and Blair should have rejected the case for war in March 2003 in favour of letting inspections proceed, and most did. Particularly on the left, those who took a consequentialist view almost all opposed the war. By contrast, the Decents (most notably Norman Geras) strongly criticised consequentialist arguments, claiming that the predictable bad consequences of war were not a legitimate reason for leaving Saddam in power, even if, in consequentialist terms, the bad outweighed the good.

Putting it a bit more sharply, advocates of rights-based views of the good have been just as willing as consequentialists to sacrifice individual lives in pursuit of the good, arguably more so.

45

Chris Bertram 11.04.09 at 10:46 pm

Is that quite right, John? You are certainly right that anything like welfarist consequentialism argued strongly against the war. But the reasoning of Geras et al had a strongly teleological (though non-welfarist) flavour, such that “we” needed to do whatever was necessary to achieve the goal of defeating Saddam et al.

46

Sebastian 11.04.09 at 10:53 pm

My primary point is that treating Halliday’s criticism as a consequentialist/non-consequentialist criticism doesn’t really get to the heart of what he is saying.

I read the passage you quote as suggesting that the Communist philosophy (or maybe rubric?) denies an important moral dimension (individual rights) and that this causes “the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion.” Most of modern Western thought about government sees a tension between state aims and individual aims and attempts to strike a balance. By denying the importance of individual rights, the need to strike a balance was removed, and all nasty things follow from that.

I don’t think trying to tie it to Stalin really paints an accurate picture of that. It certainly happened in China, and East Germany, North Korea and Vietnam as well. It also is evident well after his death.

What you seem to want to argue is that Western societies don’t respect individual rights as much as you think they should, or alternatively as much as they claim to. But the thing is that they accept it as a legitimate category of discussion. They accept it as a legitimate limit on governmental power–though how much of an actual limit is worth discussing. Communist governments pretty much don’t accept it as a legitimate category at all.

Now I don’t know if I would name them “inviolable rights” they way you do–that seems like an academic definition set up to fail. But I’d certainly go with “very important rights” which have to be given strong weight.

And this seems to have, for whatever reason which we could probably fight about for months, concrete consequences. Because as it turned out, the Western regimes really did turn out to respect individual rights of their citizens much more than the Communist regimes did. And bad Western regimes are pertinent even in that analysis–Pinochet for example was really bad. But he pretty much represented the worst of the modern Western model. And without getting into precisely where he belongs on the spectrum of awfulness, I think it is fair to say that he is right in the same range as the better end of the Communist spectrum, with all sorts of Communist regimes well to the worse end.

So if you want to say that respect for individual rights is a spectrum, with the Communist regimes respecting such rights very much less on average than the Western regimes, so be it. If you want to say that it isn’t quite right to assign the Communist regimes’ value on that spectrum as zero, I guess we could argue about that. But it isn’t descriptively helpful to say things like “It is that the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals (or even in the name of “progress” broadly conceived) has usually characterized communism’s enemies and competitors too. ” because that just isn’t the case.

47

Jacob T. Levy 11.04.09 at 10:55 pm

I think Chris’ basic point is right, but would still want to insist on the specialness of what Weber describes as chialistic theories. Consequentialism was everywhere ascendant, and what many of us view as morally illegitimate sacrifices were everywhere imposed on some for the sake of future consequences… and yet, and yet.

Strange things happen to consequentialist calculations when one particular consequence is accorded nigh-infinite weight, or when the particular decisionmaking apparatus is itself treated as the relevant consequence. The first applied to some defenses of the Iraq war (John Quiggin’s right about that), and applies to some of Hobbes’ ideas. The second applies to some bad arguments in democratic theory. (“Democracy is good in utilitarian terms even if democracies reach bad utilitarian decisions, because democracy itself has lots and lots of utils.”)

But both applied to Bolshevism and revolutionary Communism, pervasively. Party rule was scheduled to bring about– someday– a state of affairs so massively desirable that no other consequences could be meaningfully put in the scales against it. And in the meantime party rule itself was the consequence to be valued, as the necessary instrument to the future state of affairs, so, again, nothing else could be meaningfully weighed against it.

The utilitarianism of the British civil service undoubtedly authorized the breaking of many eggs that a good rights-theory would not; and undoubtedly also authorized the breaking of more eggs than a fair and unbiased version of utilitarianism would. But it was not, it seems to me, committed to insisting that there could be no number of broken eggs that would make the omelet not worth making.

48

Matthijs Krul 11.04.09 at 11:00 pm

Apologies for butting in from the outside, but I don’t understand why in an argument about consequentialism everyone is so negative about the Communist experience, or what has passed for it, so far. It is in my experience traditionally the deontological crowd who have the most objections against the policies of past Communist governments, precisely because from a consequentialist point of view, those governments have for the most part been highly succesful, in particular in Russia and China. One can only argue that the costs of the achievements were too high or that they could have been achieved with lower costs (which seems likely enough).

Seen from this perspective, the appeal to anti-consequentialism is not so much a real philosophical objection, but really an attempt to evade the issue. As you point out, all politics, whether fascism or Communism or everything in between, necessarily implies consequentialism to some degree – there is simply no way to do politics without strategy and strategy implies consequentialism. What people really mean when they therefore accuse Communism of being consequentialist is that Communism does too well according to consequentialist norms, and that they don’t like this fact. So they suddenly hop on the bandwagon of ‘principles’. Given the appalling record of capitalist governments, this seems a red herring at best.

49

Cole Newcastle 11.04.09 at 11:14 pm

“But it was not, it seems to me, committed to insisting that there could be no number of broken eggs that would make the omelet not worth making.”

That would be British eggs, right?

50

Substance McGravitas 11.04.09 at 11:17 pm

That would be British eggs, right?

Well said.

51

Jacob T. Levy 11.04.09 at 11:40 pm

Hence my “unbiased” proviso. No question: Indian and African lives were weighted at an immorally low value, and much lower than British lives. But they weren’t weighted at zero.

The immoral bias contributed to the Raj exporting grain from India to Allied soldiers during the war even after the Bengali famine had started. But they did stop eventually, and imported grain into India for a time to try to mitigate the famine. Had only British eggs counted at all, the policy wouldn’t have been reversed.

52

James Conran 11.04.09 at 11:45 pm

I’ll admit to only having scanned the thread, but it seems to me that one thing not being emphasised enough is the degree to which Leninism not only practised consequentialism but raised it to an almost deontological principle.

Jacob T. Levy comes close in comment #47 but I don’t think what I’m getting at can be better expressed than it was in two Trotsky texts: “Their Morals and Ours” and “Terrorism and Communism”:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/morals/morals.htm

http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/

From the latter: ‘As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the “sacredness of human life.'”

Perhaps the origins of this attitude lie in the belief in a Utopian future mentioned by Jacob above.

But I don’t think this (rather macho) ruthlessness played such a key role in the collective self-image and ideological/rhetorical repetoire of most of Communism’s opponents.

53

Tom Hurka 11.05.09 at 12:53 am

“Consequentialism was the dominant philosophy of government pretty much everywhere throughout the twentieth century.”

Like all sweeping historical claims, this one’s surely far too sweeping.

1. It’s a familiar point that, whereas Britain’s public political philosophy has tended to be consequentialist, that of the US has been much more rights-focused. Think how often in the US appeals to individual rights, e.g. to property, have been used to block proposals that were manifestly for the public good, e.g. health care reform or even just desegregation. More positively, think how appeals to the procedural rights of criminal defendants have been used to block proposals that were claimed to be in the public good. The idea that the dominant political philosophy of the US , at least domestically, has been consequentialist seems just wild. (This isn’t to say rights have always been upheld in the US, just that they’ve been central to the nation’s public philosophy and public political debates.)

2. Even for Britain, how much of its 20th-century foreign policy was consequentialist-driven? Take the decision to enter WWI. How much of it was a calculation of global consequences, and how much feelings of obligation to treaty partners (the duty to keep promises) or solidarity with the innocent victims of aggression (the rape of Belgium)? Again I think it’s a stretch to find consequentialism dominant. And the Dominions that followed Britain into the war weren’t being consequentialist; they were mostly acting just from loyalty to the mother country. (See the Canadian Leader of the Opposition who said that when Britain calls for Canada’s military aid its response should be “Ready, aye, ready!”)

3. Nor was academia dominated by consequentialism. In the 1930s and 1940s in Britain the leading moral philosophers — Prichard, Ross, Broad, Carritt — were all anti-consequentialists. Rawls ignored their views because he had an unfounded hostility to pluralist moral conceptions; to find his chief adversary he then went back to the 19th century and Sidgwick. But there was lots of philosophical anti-consequentialism between Sidgwick and Rawls, even in more-consequentialist Britain.

Certainly consequentialism was the political philosophy of communism and other deplorable political movements. But “of government pretty much everywhere throughout the twentieth century?” Pshaw!

54

kid bitzer 11.05.09 at 1:03 am

in the slogan “ready, aye ready”, the word “aye” is an adverb meaning “always”, rather than an interjection of asseveration. so the second comma is out of place.

55

kid bitzer 11.05.09 at 1:06 am

i believe it was originally the motto of clan johnston, the ‘aye’ being scots dialect.

otherwise–carry on.

56

engels 11.05.09 at 2:08 am

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.

60 Minutes (5/12/96)

57

John Quiggin 11.05.09 at 5:07 am

Chris, I think you have hit the nail on the head. It’s teleology* rather than consequentialism that is the problem here.

Admittedly, teleology can be viewed (as Jacob neatly puts it) as a version of consequentialism in which the end-state has effectively infinite weight. But the whole point of most critiques of consequentialism is the opposite, that consequentialists are willing to make trade-offs where other theories want to impose absolutes (rights, moral duties and so forth).

* I may be using this term the wrong way. What I mean is that history is seen as leading to some highly desirable end state, and that it is our duty to act to help bring this about (or maybe, as in Xian versions, so that we will be on the right side when the end state inevitably arises). Views of this kind seem to justify almost any crime.

58

The Raven 11.05.09 at 5:30 am

[...] the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general [....]

Hunh? Even the anarchists?

This is a legitimate criticism of Bolshevism. But it’s nonsense to generalize it to socialism as a whole.

As to the broader argument, isn’t consequentialism always the ethical justification of power for power’s sake, if any ethical justification is made at all? The bad cop is protecting us from criminals, the administration needs to torture for some “good,” mass murder is necessary for some imagined result. This is not different. I think you paint with too broad a brush: strict consequentialism has not been dominant except among violent extremists, and there it has always been dominant.

59

Chris Bertram 11.05.09 at 6:49 am

Looking at things this morning, I think I’d agree that my post was far too sweeping. There’s certainly a difference between ruthlessness in a cause and consequentialism. Ruthlessness will often appeal to consequentialist reasoning, but lots of consequentialists (despite their _theoretical_ willingness to commit murder for a sufficient benefit) are not all ruthless.

Having said that I think the general point stands. Take James Conran’s quote from Trotsky:

‘As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the “sacredness of human life.’”

It is hard to think of the leaders of any of the powers in WW1 as being detained for long by such scruples: winning the war was what mattered. Indeed one can probably trace many of the Bolshevik attitudes to the brutalizations of WW1. In WW2, even the good guys were not so worried by such prohibitions that they did not sanction the deliberate killing of non-combatants to weaken the resolve of the enemy (the atomic bombs in Japan, the bombing of German cities). Colonial policy by the British and French and American policy in Indonesia, Indochina etc as well as the “anti-communist” struggle, does not appear to have been constrained by “vegetarian Quaker prattle”.

Tom Hurka: why did Anscombe think of consequentialism as academically dominant in British moral philosophy if it wasn’t?

60

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.05.09 at 8:02 am

@53: Think how often in the US appeals to individual rights, e.g. to property, have been used to block proposals that were manifestly for the public good, e.g. health care reform or even just desegregation.

I don’t understand, how is this an example of non-consequentialism? Favoring one group (property-owners) over another (the poor, the African-Americans) somehow manifests the commitment to “individual rights”? Are you sure about that?

61

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.05.09 at 8:25 am

Come to think of it, the rest of examples in 53 seem suspect as well: based on official rhetoric rather than analysis. At the same token a Stalinist could reply that Stalin’s repressions were too motivated by “feelings of obligation” and “solidarity”; not to mention “rights-focused” (say, the sacred right of all children to go to school, or something).

62

Zamfir 11.05.09 at 9:12 am

Chirs B, your point about wars and colonies is definitely right. But it remains that many communist regimes, not just the worst ones, took that unprincipledness of wartime and applied it officially to their own society.

If are looking for a reason why communist regimes treated their own citizens worse than Western regimes do, then Halliday’s “lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general” seems a stab in the right direction , if not a brilliantly original one.

You say that Western states could show that exact same lack when it came to their colonies and their enemies’ populations. That is likely true, but when it comes to treating their colonies and enemies, the West and the communists have very similar, deplorable track records. The obvious differences are mainly in their behaviour at home, and there Halliday’s point seems to hold.

63

Chris Bertram 11.05.09 at 11:13 am

_The obvious differences are mainly in their behaviour at home, and there Halliday’s point seems to hold._

Well not entirely. The mass slaughter of conscripts in WW1 showed a willingness on the part of Western ruling classes to sacrifice _their own citizens_ , in large numbers. I think a lot of early communist brutality springs from the thought “We now know what our enemies are capable of, we can’t afford to be soft.”

64

John Quiggin 11.05.09 at 12:05 pm

Chris @63. I absolutely agree. And, it’s important to remember that the Nazis drew their brutality from a different version of the same thought – that, after all the sacrifice of the War, they had been stabbed in the back, and that only brutal extermination of the enemy within would secure victory next time.

The crime of the Great War was one of the greatest of all time, setting the scene for many more that followed.

65

ejh 11.05.09 at 1:19 pm

I don’t think it’s just the Great War that influenced Bolshevik attitudes: it was also the conviction that they and tens or hundreds of thousands of others were likely to be slaughtered if they lost. This was almost certainly true, as later demonstrated in Spain: but of course it leads people to terrible places.

66

Z 11.05.09 at 1:40 pm

The obvious differences are mainly in their behaviour at home, and there Halliday’s point seems to hold.

Not in the case of France. Algeria and its denizens were part of the “home”, and as was pointed repeatedly at the time, had been so for much longer than some parts of today’s metropolitan France (Savoie for instance). Yet the behaviour of the french state towards its citizens in Algeria was no better than anything happening at the same time in say Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Also, what Chris Bertram said about the willingness of (the most) liberal democratic governments (of the time) to give 200 000 lives for a few hundred acres of ground.

67

engels 11.05.09 at 1:59 pm

I have to say I find Jacob Levy’s argument–that whatever you say about Western rulers’ disregard for human life they always placed some value on it, whereas Communists placed none at all–to be rather implausible. How did Professor Levy discover this astonishing psychological law?

And anyone who reads the Trotsky piece James Conran links to, rather than the single sentence he quotes, will see that it does not say that any means to the success of the revolution are permitted, whatever else it says.

“Just the same,” the moralist continues to insist, “does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?” Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the “leaders”. Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers, that is, those characteristics in which petty bourgeois pedants and moralists are thoroughly steeped.

These criteria do not, of course, give a ready answer to the question as to what is permissible and what is not permissible in each separate case. There can be no such automatic answers. Problems of revolutionary morality are fused with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics. The living experience of the movement under the clarification of theory provides the correct answer to these problems.

68

Chris 11.05.09 at 2:50 pm

the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which . . . lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the “leaders”.

With sentiments like that, it’s a real shame he lost the internal power struggle and was forced into exile and then assassinated.

Also, I second Henri’s point that regard for rights isn’t incompatible with consequentialism. Just assign some non-infinite negative value to violations of rights (with differing amounts depending on the importance of the right), and you arrive at the conclusion that rights should only be violated in emergencies where there is greater overriding need (e.g. commandeering vehicles to evacuate a disaster area).

Which is pretty much the way the U.S. for example does regard rights, in theory, but the justifications officially accepted have become flimsier and flimsier and/or the value of rights has become smaller and smaller (there might be someone possessing an ounce of marijuana? sure, break down the door, shoot the dog, and taser the occupants before looking for evidence), and in practice even that kind of fig leaf is not necessarily observed. Some parts of “the West” do not have a lot of stones left to throw at communism where disregard for individual rights is concerned, really.

69

harold 11.05.09 at 2:55 pm

My impression is (from reading old novels and newspapers) that before World War II the idea that all people had rights was a distinctly minority position. It was more “some people” had rights in the small minority of countries in the world with traditions of parliamentary democracy, but the prevailing opinion was that most of the world’s other countries, including Germany and Italy, India and Africa, were not up to it and probably never would be. Therefore, all kinds of otherwise respectable people (in their own eyes) did not really absorb what was happening in Russia and Germany. And they closed a blind eye to conditions in the American South and South Africa as well. It was just the way the world was for them. The Bolshevics were not the only ones (in short) to think that liberal talk of rights and freedoms was a crock. (I do not believe they are a crock, personally).

70

roac 11.05.09 at 3:10 pm

The mass slaughter of conscripts in WW1 showed a willingness on the part of Western ruling classes to sacrifice their own citizens , in large numbers.

Indeed. But it must be pointed out that the British ruling class, at least, sacrificed its own sons as well — probably in greater proportion to their numbers than the sons of the proles. Which cannot be said of the US in any of its wars since 1945

71

mpowell 11.05.09 at 5:58 pm

67/68: I think you could argue that language like that is not likely to survive a revolutionary movement. It is too easy to push aside those leaders who are too soft to do what it takes when you have already embraced a strong end goal, as Levy points out earlier. The likelihood of a group of elites recoiling in horror at the consequences of their actions is reduced when the only philosophical objection they acknowledge with respect to a given means is so subjective and poorly aligned with natural human feelings regarding human suffering. Following along here, its surprising to me that folks are still willing to claim that there was no significant difference in degree between communist governments and western ones during the 20th century. It seems to me that after the horror of WW1, many western governments were, in fact, shocked at what had happened and took steps (if ineffectual) to prevent it from happening again.

72

geo 11.05.09 at 6:01 pm

Trotsky (@67) nails it. Of course the end justifies the means. What else could? Every justification anyone ever adopts is based, implicitly or explicitly, on a reckoning of consequences, proximate and ultimate. To invoke “rights” is simply to accept the vast and intricate collective reckoning that went into the definition of those rights.

Of course Trotsky is completely full of shit in suggesting that Bolshevik practice adhered to the lofty standards he cites. What the Bolsheviks was precisely to try to “make the masses happy without their participation … lower the faith of the masses in themselves … [and] replace it by worship for the ‘leaders.’” In fact, they subjected the masses completely, repressed them savagely, and fostered abject Party-worship.
The result was not happiness; it was Stalinism. This was more or less what Dewey replied to Trotsky, as I mentioned above @18.

FWIW, here’s something short but (I think, since I wrote it) interesting on the subject: http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1994/10/the-worst-policy.html.

73

Chris Bertram 11.05.09 at 6:50 pm

_Every justification anyone ever adopts is based, implicitly or explicitly, on a reckoning of consequences, proximate and ultimate._

That’s a pretty bold universal claim George, are you quite sure about it?

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Chris 11.05.09 at 6:57 pm

@71: I think if you assume Trotsky meant what he wrote, the term “communist” is insufficiently specific to be useful. Trotsky wouldn’t have been willing to go along with what some later “communists” did; indeed, that’s why he was exiled and assassinated by Stalin. Yet Trotsky plainly was himself a communist. Equivocating between the “communism” of Stalin and that of Trotsky seems an unfair guilt-by-association attack on the latter. Many of the really objectionable practices that we moderns associated with communism occurred after Trotsky’s death.

Of course, it’s possible to assume that Trotsky was just blowing smoke and wouldn’t really have been any different from Stalin in practice, too. Is there any evidence of that?

75

mpowell 11.05.09 at 7:15 pm

I’m not really making any claims about what Trotsky would or would not have done if we in power. My argument is that there was no way that this ideal Trotsky could come to or remain in power in a revolutionary communist movement. If there is a course of action that will strengthen the party and a high human cost, nobody is actually going to accept the argument that it will ‘lower the faith of the masses in themselves’ as an argument against the policy. People will accept the argument that tons of people will die, but even ideal Trotsky rejects that as an acceptable argument. I don’t really care whether Trotsky’s memory is tainted by guilt with association of later communist’s actions. The argument that I wish to advance is that Trotsky did not have a vision for a sustainable or stable revolutionary movement.

76

geo 11.05.09 at 7:17 pm

Dear Chris (not the famous one): By saying “it led to Stalinism,” I meant to make clear that I was referring to the pre-Stalinist period, when the Bolsheviks did indeed subject the masses completely, repress them savagely, and foster abject Party-worship. No, Trotsky wasn’t Stalin, but he was nevertheless a liar, tyrant, murderer, and betrayer of socialism. Clever chap, though, and could certainly turn a phrase.

Dear Chris: It isn’t exactly a universal claim, since that sort of implies that it’s an empirical claim, which fits every case. I’m suggesting that it’s simply a question of what we mean when we use the word “rights.” How do we decide (not discover, decide) what the content of the right to private property is, or the right to free speech is, or any other right? We imagine — in the course of a conversation that stretches across cultures, disciplines, and generations — all the consequences of defining it one way rather than another, taking into account that we need clear, stable rules, that we want to promote solidarity, self-reliance, and other virtues, and anything else we can think of to take into account. Then we define the right in law, jurisprudence, moral philosophy, etc. Then we keep talking about it as the world turns, and if necessary revise it. Nothing but consequences, as far as I can make out. Not a metaphysical consideration in sight.

77

Cole Newcastle 11.05.09 at 7:20 pm

Consequentialism becoming teleology as faith. Revolutionary logic is military utilitarianism, which is engaged but short sighted. Think of the US military’s emotion-based requirement for victory in Afghanistan. Not gonna happen. Similarly the reflexive response of the bourgeois leadership to the threat of communism was to imagine an idea as a disease.

The best defense against revolution was always more social freedom and more democracy. But the western leadership and more recently the US in particular has never ceased anti-democratic machinations against whatever plague, whether radical communism or radical Islam. We are not now a supporter of democratization in the middle east. A Palestinians is still maybe 4[?] 5ths of an Israeli in the popular imagination. And many base that on the argument that Israel is a state, as if a political entity were a moral or even Platonic one.
Also, a rights-based logic can be consequentialist but it’s also a consequentialist logic against individualism: of rights and concomitant obligations, not to the state as such but to others.

78

Sebastian 11.05.09 at 7:21 pm

“Trotsky wouldn’t have been willing to go along with what some later “communists” did; indeed, that’s why he was exiled and assassinated by Stalin. “

Trotsky wasn’t exiled because he wasn’t willing to go along with what later communists did. He was every bit as hardcore as Stalin. Trotsky began a huge power struggle with Lenin over whether the trade unions should effectively be militarized (Trotsky was on the militarization side, not the trade union side). He thought that people in industry who refused to be transfered should be treated as deserters for example.

Trotsky was exiled because he was the man most obvious heir to Lenin when Lenin was dying, and Stalin wanted to have power himself.

79

Matt 11.05.09 at 7:24 pm

Of course, it’s possible to assume that Trotsky was just blowing smoke and wouldn’t really have been any different from Stalin in practice, too. Is there any evidence of that?

His actions as leader of the Red Army in the civil war, and the aggressiveness with which he was involved in coercive appropriation of food and agricultural products from the peasants, and his distrust of democracy w/in the party (at least at times) give us good reason to think he wasn’t the benevolent figure he’s sometimes made out to be. I don’t know that this licenses the conclusions that he “wouldn’t really have been any different from Stalin in Practice”, but there’s good evidence that he was willing and able to be extremely harsh in support of the revolutionary ideal.

80

Chris Bertram 11.05.09 at 8:02 pm

I’m sure Trotsky wasn’t a benevolent figure, though he did have some admirable qualities (a man of superb energy and intellect, not a philistine, etc., but also ruthless and vain). One thing that annoys me about the Trotsky-would-have-been-as-bad-as-Stalin line is the appalling ignorance about the history of the Soviet Union it displays. All kinds of very bad things went on from the beginning, but they were accompanied by lots of good things too, and it would probably have been much worse pogrom-and-massacre-wise if the Whites had won the civil war. But the developments after the Kirov assassination (17 years after the revolution, remember) were of a quite different order. Even people like la Applebaum are willing to acknowledge that.

81

Matt 11.05.09 at 8:20 pm

One thing that annoys me about the Trotsky-would-have-been-as-bad-as-Stalin line is the appalling ignorance about the history of the Soviet Union it displays.

Sure- there’s lots of this, perhaps even more than the largely evidence-free claims often made that if only Trotsky had won, things would have been grand. (I’m not saying you’re saying this, Chris, just as I hope you’re not suggesting the other about me. Much of my view of the matter comes from reading histories of the era written by people not opposed to leftists views as such- Alec Nove, among others- and I think one can have an awfully pessimistic view about how things would have gone if Trotsky had won without being ignorant of the relevant history.)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.05.09 at 8:20 pm

Right. With Stalin, it’s pretty obvious that all his actions since at least the late 1920s were motivated purely by the lust for power. With Trotsky – there is a fair chance he was a sincere revolutionary. And obviously he wasn’t harsh enough, or it would’ve been Stalin who had to move to Mexico.

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Sebastian 11.05.09 at 8:21 pm

But again, we are talking about a continuum where we offer a huge amount of leeway to communism. Is anyone arguing that Trotsky would have been better than Pinochet for example?

That reinforces Halliday’s point. If you offer speculative-Trotsky as a best case scenario for the Communist kind of system in Russia and actual-Pinochet as pretty much the worst case scenario for the Western kind of system in Chile doesn’t that say something about the systems? And maybe the fact that the Communist system seems to regularly let Stalins and Maos and Kim Il-sungs get power says something too.

Halliday suggests that the difference is found in the “ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general”. For Communists that isn’t a valid category, for Western governments it is a relatively strong one (though everyone agrees it isn’t singularly overpowering).

You interpret this as consequentialist vs. non-consequentialist, and suggest that Western and Communist governments were in reality both consequentialist. But that isn’t what Halliday is saying. If you insist on a consequentialist lens, he is saying that the Western governments pay a fairly high amount of attention to the individual rights of citizens in the consequentialist calculus, while Communists don’t. In retrospect, this difference seems to have had a profound effect on how things played out with the citizens of various countries.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.05.09 at 8:44 pm

Yeah, but you’re comparing a new, experimental model with the old, well-established one. As the discussion of the WWI demonstrates, the “Western governments” had their share of terrible problems (and still do, of course). They struggled, ran into dead-ends, rolled back, adjusted; they evolved. This new model might evolve too.

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geo 11.05.09 at 8:50 pm

Sebastian: If you offer speculative-Trotsky as a best case scenario for the Communist kind of system in Russia and actual-Pinochet as pretty much the worst case scenario for the Western kind of system in Chile doesn’t that say something about the systems?

Not the right comparison, I’d say. Chile had a vibrant civil society before Pinochet, which probably constrained his viciousness more than any Western fealty to individual rights. Russia had nothing of the kind. A better comparison might be to Guatemala, El Salvador, or Colombia under US-trained and -supplied military dictatorships.

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geo 11.05.09 at 8:53 pm

PS – Also, unlike Bolshevik Russia, Chile had no external enemies.

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Sebastian 11.05.09 at 9:37 pm

But geo, Pinochet’s Chile is just about the worst example we have of the type. West Germany had external enemies, but it didn’t become East Germany. South Korea had external enemies but it didn’t become North Korea. (South Korea for the 15 years after the war might count as another worst case scenario for the Western model that ends up looking as good or better than the best case scenarios of the Communist model). Japan had two major external enemies, China AND the USSR, but it didn’t turn into anything like the USSR.

So we have a scenario where you have a tentative argument that the worst case Western scenario might be in the same zone as the very best case Communist examples. (I suppose the idea that Castro’s Cuba was better in general than Pinochet’s Chile is arguable if IMO wrong). But that just ends up reinforcing the fact that Western countries really did/do a lot better on individual treatment of citizens than Communist countries. And they also claim to take such things into account more than the near-zero level that Communist countries do.

Now I’m all for skepticism about government claims. But the record of actions is clear.

The fact that many Western countries did/do nasty things to other citizens isn’t really to the point unless you believe that Communist countries weirdly are vastly worse to their own citizens, but better to other country’s citizens than Western countries. But I don’t think anyone makes that claim.

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Tom Hurka 11.05.09 at 10:38 pm

Chris: About Anscombe, the reason she took consequentialism to be academically dominant is that she classified lots of non-consequentialist views as consequentialist (see especially fn. 4 of “Modern Moral Philosophy,” about Ross). More specifically, she thought that unless you’re an absolutist deontologist like her, who thinks certain acts can never be justified no matter what the consequences, you’re really a consequentialist. But that’s silly, isn’t it? If I think it would be wrong to kill an innocent person to save ten or a thousand or even ten thousand people but not to save ten million, I’m a consequentialist? Yet that’s what Anscombe assumed in taking consequentialism to have been academically dominant.

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engels 11.05.09 at 10:55 pm

Western countries really did/do a lot better on individual treatment of citizens than Communist countries. And they also claim to take such things into account more than the near-zero level that Communist countries do. Now I’m all for skepticism about government claims. But the record of actions is clear.

And yet Birger is sitting in a Hamburg cafe, defending the former communist country. “Most East German citizens had a nice life,” he says. “I certainly don’t think that it’s better here.” By “here,” he means reunified Germany, which he subjects to questionable comparisons. “In the past there was the Stasi, and today (German Interior Minister Wolfgang) Schäuble — or the GEZ (the fee collection center of Germany’s public broadcasting institutions) — are collecting information about us.” In Birger’s opinion, there is no fundamental difference between dictatorship and freedom. “The people who live on the poverty line today also lack the freedom to travel.” [...]

As an apologist for the former East German dictatorship, the young Mecklenburg native shares a majority view of people from eastern Germany. Today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled. Eight percent of eastern Germans flatly oppose all criticism of their former home and agree with the statement: “The GDR had, for the most part, good sides. Life there was happier and better than in reunified Germany today.”

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geo 11.05.09 at 11:01 pm

Sebastian: Pinochet’s Chile is nowhere near the worst example of the type, if the type in question is capitalist, US-supported tyrannies. In Chile, roughly 3000 people were killed and thousands of others imprisoned and tortured. Scores of thousands of Central American civilians were killed by (again, US-trained and -equipped) security forces. Indonesia, Iran under the Shah, Iraq under Saddam, and other US clients were also worse than Chile. No argument overall about the overall superiority of Communist states, at least during their Stalinist periods, at brutalizing their populations, or about the importance of limits on state power. Still, not all Soviet clients were worse at all times than all US clients throughout the Cold War.

Tom: “More specifically, she thought that unless you’re an absolutist deontologist like her, who thinks certain acts can never be justified no matter what the consequences, you’re really a consequentialist. But that’s silly, isn’t it?” I don’t see why. Though the question then becomes: Why does Anscombe think so? Or rather, why does she think she thinks so, since it would seem that what she actually thinks is that the consequences of killing one innocent person are worse than any other imaginable state of affairs, including the instantaneous and excruciatingly painful destruction of the entire universe. Daft, perhaps, but that’s philosophy.

“If I think it would be wrong to kill an innocent person to save ten or a thousand or even ten thousand people but not to save ten million, I’m a consequentialist?” Precisely.

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Donald Johnson 11.05.09 at 11:14 pm

“we have a scenario where you have a tentative argument that the worst case Western scenario might be in the same zone as the very best case Communist examples.”

Uh no. The Bolsheviks were bad, but their White opponents were at least as bad. I’m curious to know what evidence there is that, as Chris B thinks, they would have been much worse than the Bolsheviks if they had won, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

The relevant comparisons are like to like. The South Korean/North Korean example is better for your case, though as you admit (I think), for the first decades South Korea was a pretty horrible example, and during the Korean War there’s not much to choose between the two sides.

Trotsky killed far more than Pinochet, but Pinochet in the context of the Russian Civil War would have been vastly worse than Pinochet coming after Allende. Now there’s a comparison that favors the left–Pinochet vs. Allende.

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Donald Johnson 11.05.09 at 11:26 pm

BTW, the difference in bodycount between Lenin and Stalin may not be as big as some think, at least not if you accept the estimates that hundreds of thousands were executed under Lenin and several million died due to famine because of war communism.

Stalin’s tolls–

Timothy Snyder1

Snyder2

Snyder3

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James Kroeger 11.05.09 at 11:28 pm

Geo, #18:

I suspect the question of the philosophical foundations (if any) of ethics has already been thoroughly argued on Crooked Timber.

Perhaps not. It is possible for an individual to be a consequentialist without necessarily also believing that worthy ends always justify any means used to achieve them. Most of the anti-consequentialist comments expressed thus far assume that a necessary connection exists.

I, for example, believe that the consequences of an act [or decision to not act] are the sole determinants of whether or not an act is moral or immoral, but I do not believe that the ends can always be justified by the means.

A simple test can be used to determine whether or not an act is moral or immoral: If everyone would benefit if everyone acted in the same way, then the act—or decision to not act—is moral. If everyone would be worse off if everyone were to act the same way, then the act/choice is immoral.

Killing a person who angers you is immoral because we would not all be better off if we were all to kill the people who anger us. Stealing is also immoral in most situations for the same reason. Lying is immoral in some circumstances because we would not all be better off if everyone also lied when facing the same circumstances. But lying would be moral in other circumstances because everyone would be better off if everyone were to lie for the same reasons.

So yes, the consequences always determine whether or not an action is moral, immoral, or neither, but only when those consequences pass the test of universality. Moral [immoral] behavior is behavior we would like to see everyone embrace [eschew], because we would all benefit if we all did. (A) Murdering your political opponents or (B) attacking countries you merely perceive to be a potential threat are immoral actions because we would not all be better off if we all murdered the champions of philosophies we oppose or if all countries attacked neighboring countries that they merely felt threatened by in some way.

Rights are not something that any person/group actually possesses. An individual/group possesses a ‘right’ only if everyone else agrees that they would be better off if they were to behave in a certain way re: the individual/group being granted the right.

Right?

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Sebastian 11.06.09 at 12:34 am

““In the past there was the Stasi, and today (German Interior Minister Wolfgang) Schäuble—or the GEZ (the fee collection center of Germany’s public broadcasting institutions)—are collecting information about us.” In Birger’s opinion, there is no fundamental difference between dictatorship and freedom. “

Birger was 10 when he last lived in East Germany. According to the article you link, his views tend to be shared by those young enough not to have experienced it as adults, or those who were in power at the time.

“Still, not all Soviet clients were worse at all times than all US clients throughout the Cold War.”

Yes. As I said above, if you pick the very best Soviet clients at their very freest times, they are maybe slightly better than the worst US clients at the very worst times. Which is another way of saying that on average the Western states were vastly better.

And if you pick the principal states (US, UK vs. USSR, China) the comparison is horrific for the Communist states.

Donald “The relevant comparisons are like to like. The South Korean/North Korean example is better for your case, though as you admit (I think), for the first decades South Korea was a pretty horrible example”

But enormously better than North Korea, right? My point isn’t that the Western states were always wonderful. But that they were almost always better. You have to really stretch to find counterexamples. You have to take something like 1995 Cuba and compare it to right-after-the-coup Chile. You have to take 1955 and-not-a-second-later than the reassertion of Soviet rule Hungary and compare it to moments after the armistice South Korea.

And it certainly seems plausible that the reason for this is that Western systems respect to some degree the idea of individual citizen freedom, while Communist countries really don’t see it even as a category.

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engels 11.06.09 at 12:48 am

“The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled.

Are these all people ‘young enough not to have experienced it as adults, or those who were in power at the time’? I don’t see how that can be true.

Anyway, without taking a position on the correctness of their views, it is interesting, is it not, that your convictions about the obvious superiority of life under capitalism, in terms of individual people’s lives, are not shared by the majority of East Germans?

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geo 11.06.09 at 1:02 am

Sounds right, James, at first reading anyway. A couple of quibbles, though. For one: “without necessarily also believing that worthy ends always justify any means used to achieve them.” Has anyone ever believed that “worthy ends always justify any means used to achieve them”? Logically speaking, this would imply that eg, getting a good grade on an exam – undoubtedly a worthy end – is worth putting a billion people to death, if one believed it would help achieve the end.

For another: the circumstances are never exactly the same. Yes, of course, we need rules that treat similar circumstances and choices similarly – and we have them, in the two cases you mention: not murdering political opponents and not making preventive war. But the requirement that everyone would be better off if everyone made the choice one is proposing to make – what does that mean? It can’t mean that the choice you’re proposing is the one everyone would choose to make in those circumstances; and it can’t mean that everyone would be better off if you make this choice. A rule of conduct simply means: “Everyone would be better off if everyone did this in these circumstances.” It seems to me you’re proposing that we make moral rules exactly as we already make them.

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Sebastian 11.06.09 at 1:13 am

“Are these all people ‘young enough not to have experienced it as adults, or those who were in power at the time’? I don’t see how that can be true.”

They don’t have to ALL be, they can mostly be.

“Anyway, without taking a position on the correctness of their views, it is interesting, is it not, that your convictions about the obvious superiority of life under capitalism, in terms of individual people’s lives, are not shared by the majority of East Germans?”

Since only 8% of East Germans agree with “Life there was happier and better than in reunified Germany today.” I would say tend to think it “not that interesting”. Hell you can get more than 8% of people to say that the world is flat or that the moon landing was faked.

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Donald Johnson 11.06.09 at 2:00 am

” though as you admit (I think), for the first decades South Korea was a pretty horrible example”

But enormously better than North Korea, right? “

Actually, for the first couple of decades, I’m not sure there was much of a difference. That’s the impression I got from reading Bruce Cumings, the leftist historian of Korea. Now things got gradually better in South Korea, so eventually there was an enormous difference, but in the 1950’s, maybe not much of one at all.

There’s a vast difference between communism and non-communism if you compare Eastern Europe to Western Europe, but when you get into the client states in Africa and Asia and Latin America, I think the overlap is huge.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.06.09 at 7:19 am

But what about Greece under the junta vs. Yugoslavia?

Yeah, all this, it’s just a weak approach, it doesn’t explain much. Political economy is required.

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Chris Bertram 11.06.09 at 8:24 am

_But geo, Pinochet’s Chile is just about the worst example we have of the type_

It rather depends what you take “the type” to be, since anti-Communist western or western-backed regimes might reasonably be taken to include Nazi Germany (Godwin’s law violation alert) and various European fascist regimes. Post-war, you can add Indonesia into the mix, as well as the many death-squad equipped central American countries.

_And if you pick the principal states (US, UK vs. USSR, China) the comparison is horrific for the Communist states._

Well a better comparison would be China versus India, wouldn’t it? I don’t have the relevant data to hand but there’s do doubt that China (great leap forward) (cultural revolution) has experienced millions of mass avoidable deaths (especially through famine) and is a serial human-rights violator. On the other hand, I seem to recall from something in Amartya Sen that, over time, China has done better than India wrt avoidable deaths due to poverty-related causes.

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Matthijs Krul 11.06.09 at 8:49 am

China did much better than India and most particularly so under Mao. Under Mao, there was a significant number of preventable deaths due to the Great Leap Forward famine and some effects of the Cultural Revolution (though the latter were relatively minor). But the increases in health indicators drove up the life expectancy so significantly that thanks to the Maoist policies, literally hundreds of millions of people lived that would otherwise have died. As Sen pointed out, in 1979, at the start of the Deng reform period, the life expectancy in China was 14 years higher than it was in social-democratic India. That is a vast difference. The infant mortality that year in China was 37/1000; in India it was 120/1000. And so on.

It is important to emphasize that this irrefutably means that the policies under Mao c.s. had a net very positive effect in terms of lives. Many more people lived thanks to their policies than died thanks to their policies. Yet Sen, while he is aware of this, is not willing to draw the obvious conclusion that Communist economic policies work.

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ejh 11.06.09 at 9:18 am

Tsk on him.

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ejh 11.06.09 at 9:37 am

as well as the many death-squad equipped central American countries.

Guatemala comes to mind, in which the largescale massacre of political opponents and Mayans in general – this report suggests figures of over forty thousand people being directly victims of murder – was bankrolled by the Reagan government. The chief organisers of these murders are still active in Guatemalan politics today and do not seem to be in any danger of extradition to War Crimes Tribunals.

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Chris 11.06.09 at 2:45 pm

There’s a vast difference between communism and non-communism if you compare Eastern Europe to Western Europe

I’m curious, are you classifying democratic sozialist (if responding, preserve this intentional misspelling to avoid the spam filter) states as “non-communism” in order to arrive at this conclusion? If so, I think you have a line-drawing problem. You could equally well classify them as non-capitalism and then arrive at the conclusion that non-capitalism outperforms capitalism (whose best case is the pre-New-Deal US and whose worst include banana republics).

Of course if you’re going to define communism to include *only* the parade of horribles, then it looks pretty horrible. But that’s not a very meaningful conclusion. If you include communist-influenced regimes more broadly, then some of the most successful nations on Earth incorporate capitalism *and* communism.

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bianca steele 11.06.09 at 3:10 pm

Going way back up the thread (not that it isn’t worthwhile to hash out what progressive thought about foreign policy should be), I think Hidari@9 makes a good point: Halliday’s definition of communism is unclear to me. But Chris B.@2 also makes a point that I’m surprised hasn’t been picked up by anybody that I can see. Communism–if by communism we mean Bolshevism and Leninism-Trotskyism–as I understand this, combines strict means-ends thinking by the revolutionary elite about policies to be imposed on the population without their consent with an elaborate theory concerning how policies shall be determined in order to produce desired results.

In the West, where few know the details of this theory and fewer think the theory is true, few think those policies will produce those results, but the policies still have to be accepted, and therefore I think it doesn’t look much like a consequentialist theory anymore from outside. At least it is hard to see what it has in common with ordinary consequentialism that might be actually persuasive to somebody.

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Zamfir 11.06.09 at 3:18 pm

Chris, I don’t think that works. Even if the line could be vague in theory, in practice the line was clear and sharp. Social-democratic parties did not see themselves as communists, nor were they seen as such by the self-identifying communists.

That could have been different if for example the communists in Italy had grown to be a major government party, but the US (and many others) made very sure such things didn’t happen.

The result is that ‘communist country’ and ‘friend of Russia or China’ are almost the same category. Even if there is nothing in communism in principle that leads to that, it is how it worked out in practice.

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Sebastian 11.06.09 at 4:30 pm

We don’t have much of a line drawing problem. It takes quite a bit to argue that West Germany or pre-Thatcher UK ought to count as communist. And Nazi Germany is much more ‘other’ than of the West (note for example that it allied WITH the USSR against Poland and with clear view of being opposed to France and the UK at the beginning of WWII.) At this point we are approaching the argumentation sophistication of those who suggest that Nazism is clearly of the left because it has the word socialist in the title. Which is pretty thin stuff indeed.

Again, I’m perfectly willing to admit that if you take out all of the bad examples on the Communist side (USSR, China, North Korea) and exclude all of the good examples in the West (US, UK, France, West Germany) you can get to almost similar cases in the worst of the West and the best of the Communist. I just don’t see any reason why you would do that, and no one has even tried to defend an analytic reason why that would make sense. If the range on one side is 75-48 and the range on the other side is 50-15, it isn’t true that the two categories are essentially the same just because they share 2 points on the opposite extremes.

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Hidari 11.06.09 at 7:14 pm

‘The result is that ‘communist country’ and ‘friend of Russia or China’ are almost the same category. Even if there is nothing in communism in principle that leads to that, it is how it worked out in practice.’

According to Wikipedia:

‘ Communist parties, or their descendant parties, remain politically important in many countries. President Dimitris Christofias of Cyprus is a member of the Progressive Party of Working People… In South Africa, the Communist Party is a partner in the ANC-led government. In India, communists lead the governments of three states, with a combined population of more than 115 million. In Nepal, communists hold a majority in the parliament.’

Of course (comes the rejoinder immediately) these countries are ‘not really communist’. Why not? Because they aren’t one party states.

But this simply makes it clear that the real target of the article in question was Leninism, or Bolshevism. Which is, quite simply, not the same as Marxism or Communism.

It’s also not necessarily true that communism and social democracy are opposed. In Venezuela, the PCV supports Chavez (critically) and are part of the Chavez coalition.

Obviously this did not happen in Western Europe, but, yet again, this was clearly because of the Soviet Union.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.06.09 at 8:10 pm

It’s also not necessarily true that communism and social democracy are opposed.

You’re a diabolical revisionist renegade, Hidari.

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Joshua Holmes 11.07.09 at 4:19 am

The infant mortality that year in China was 37/1000; in India it was 120/1000. And so on.

Had someone reported genuine statistics about infant mortality in China in 1979, he would have been shot.

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Dong Haotian 11.07.09 at 5:30 am

Had someone reported genuine statistics about infant mortality in China in 1979, he would have been shot.

This is an amusing attempt to hand-wave away the facts with unsubstantiated mythology demonstrating a complete unfamiliarity with the different periods of modern Chinese history, but that’s a Western estimate.

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Matthijs Krul 11.07.09 at 12:44 pm

Mr. Joshua Holmes seems unaware that there are very accurate statistics on Communist China, made by State Department employees. And that these statistics prove that Communism works, whether Mr. Holmes likes this or not. Or is he going to argue that anyone who said bad things about China in the State Department would have been shot?

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James Kroeger 11.07.09 at 1:30 pm

Bianca Steele, #105

Communism—if by communism we mean Bolshevism and Leninism-Trotskyism—as I understand this, combines strict means-ends thinking by the revolutionary elite about policies to be imposed on the population without their consent with an elaborate theory concerning how policies shall be determined in order to produce desired results.

I think the point has to be made that the means-ends thinking embraced by the Bolsheviks would also be embraced by virtually ANY successful group of revolutionaries whether or not they also are committed to advancing the interests of the working class. It is a certainty that the leaders of any successful right-wing coup would also embrace the same kind of expedient rationalizations.

It seems abundantly clear [to me] that no necessary connection between means-justifies-ends thinking and feelings of sympathy for underprivileged groups can be established.

So why this determined effort to suggest that a necessary connection exists without explaining how we get from A (sympathy for working class victims) to B (any means used, however horrible, to achieve the end is justified by its inherent worthiness)?

One plausible explanation: apologetics articulated by intellectual representatives of the privileged classes which seeks to demonize those who might feel inspired to advocate for the working poor.

Is there a better explanation?

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Matt 11.07.09 at 2:05 pm

there are very accurate statistics on Communist China, made by State Department employees.

I have no idea what the infant mortality rate in China is or was. I’m perfectly willing to believe it’s better, and has been for some time, than India’s. But I do know that I’d put not more than a bit of faith in statistics such as these, especially ones gathered in the late 70’s. My skepticism is based on the way that government bodies in the US consistently got Soviet figures wrong, and also my knowledge of how the US State Department works (partly from having quite a few friends in the Foreign Service.) Both factors lead me to believe that a wise person will not rate such statistics as “very accurate” without significant outside confirmation, made from completely different sources.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.07.09 at 2:28 pm

@113, I think what he’s trying to address there is the competition between liberal and egalitarian ideologies. Right-wing and nationalist ones don’t belong, they are bad by definition.

It amounts to the familiar platitude: ‘communism is a great and noble aspiration, but unfortunately it just doesn’t work’. And in the framework of liberal ethics, the proof of this assertion is, of course, trivial.

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James Kroeger 11.07.09 at 3:02 pm

geo, #96:

Has anyone ever believed that “worthy ends always justify any means used to achieve them”?

I suppose I should have used the word ‘sometimes’ instead of the word ‘always’, shouldn’t I?

…the circumstances are never exactly the same.

Circumstances that involve variables that are different from other circumstances must be evaluated according to the same criterion: would everyone be better off if everyone behaved the same way? There is certain to be a debate over the morality of particular acts that involve many convoluted variables, but if ALL the relevant facts can be ascertained, then a correct judgment of the act’s morality/immorality can be ascertained.

But the requirement that everyone would be better off if everyone made the choice one is proposing to make – what does that mean? It can’t mean that the choice you’re proposing is the one everyone would choose to make in those circumstances; and it can’t mean that everyone would be better off if you make this choice.

If you’re thinking of a particularly sticky example, then feel free to share it. I simply mean that if everyone were to—as a matter of habit—-act in a particular way, would we all feel that we are better off? Would we feel a greater sense of security, for example?

It seems to me you’re proposing that we make moral rules exactly as we already make them.

Yes, I would say that the thing I’m pointing at is nothing more than the essential, intuitive reasoning upon which people base their evaluations of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness.’ It supports my position that universal moral absolutes truly do exist, but whether or not a particular act is right or wrong is relevant to (A) the circumstances that are involved, and (B) the consequences that would follow if everyone were to act in the same way. What is right for one person—in a particular circumstance—is right for all other human beings—who find themselves in the same circumstance.

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bianca steele 11.07.09 at 3:34 pm

James Kroeger@113

I meant to refer to the postrevolutionary period (ignoring any remaining questions in the case of the USSR concerning when it ended, or what it means to end, under the relevant theory). Though the innovation of the Bolsheviks as I recall was in separating the gaining of power by the party from the goals of the party, as political ends (and IIRC also separating the makeup of the party from the demographics of those whose interests were to be represented). I don’t think that’s what’s been meant by means-justifies-ends thinking here up to now.

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geo 11.07.09 at 4:45 pm

James: the thing I’m pointing at is nothing more than the essential, intuitive reasoning upon which people base their evaluations of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness.’ It supports my position that universal moral absolutes truly do

I agree that the way people make moral judgments is universal, ie, by weighing consequences. But I’d say that the content of those judgments is radically contingent, because the judging individuals are … well, individual. Each one’s experiences, environment, constitution, etc, are different, sometimes drastically so. Of course there are considerable regularities, but not identity, hence no universal moral absolutes.

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Hidari 11.07.09 at 6:01 pm

‘I agree that the way people make moral judgments is universal, ie, by weighing consequences. ‘

Yes this is exactly right. The fact that all people, everywhere, think about and talk about moral issues, and make moral judgements, is a Universal. (As is the fact that all people, everywhere, make aesthetic judgements). That is what Nietzsche meant, when he called us (apparently), Man the Esteemer, or Man the valuer. That’s what we do as humans.

But the resulting judgements from this process vary from culture to culture, from person to person, and from era to era. There are no moral absolutes, as even a cursory glance at human history very quickly demonstrates.

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James Kroeger 11.07.09 at 6:05 pm

Geo: But I’d say that the content of those judgments is radically contingent, because the judging individuals are … well, individual. Each one’s experiences, environment, constitution, etc, are different, sometimes drastically so. Of course there are considerable regularities, but not identity, hence no universal moral absolutes.

I argue that a real synthesis is possible here. Perceptions may differ and the assumptions people make about reality may differ, but the objective reality we speculate about is not a matter of opinion. Some people have a fairly accurate perception of what their need are; others do not.

My claim that “good” and “bad” are not a matter of opinion is based ultimately on the assumption that all human beings have the same needs. If we all have the same needs, then we will all be made “better off” [in fact] if/when everybody acts in the same [moral] way. (“Better off” = need-satisfaction or need-deprivation avoided.)

Now I agree that it is a good idea for society to adopt the practice of ‘tolerance’, not because I believe in moral relativism, but because I believe it is better to ‘tolerate’ the consequences of certain mistaken perceptions of virtue/vice (i.e., rely on argument and moral persuasion) rather than rely upon punitive sanctions to motivate people to behave morally. (Also, the jury is still out on certain other moral issues, like abortion, because fundamental disagreements regarding the facts are far from being resolved.)

So ultimately, moral absolutes exist, but practically speaking, we may lack the certainty of facts that would enable us to motivate a more widespread devotion to moral behavior, and so we tolerate.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.07.09 at 6:13 pm

It’s not that perceptions differ, it’s the realities themselves that differ. Reality of New York City has almost nothing in common with reality of, say, a small Tasmanian village.

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geo 11.07.09 at 7:31 pm

So ultimately, moral absolutes exist, but practically speaking, we may lack the certainty of facts that would enable us to motivate a more widespread devotion to moral behavior, and so we tolerate

Nicely put, James. So we agree, then: moral absolutes exist impractically, but toleration is a practical absolute, or practically a practical absolute, since there may be (we can’t be certain) facts or circumstances that would motivate non-toleration.

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geo 11.07.09 at 7:35 pm

PS:

facts or circumstances that would motivate non-toleration

In practice, that is. Not absolutely.

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Matthijs Krul 11.07.09 at 7:37 pm

It only makes sense to criticize statistics if there are better ones available. In the case of the USSR for example there are now very good figures available that are accepted by all specialists in the field. That seems a fair enough criterium, no? The same goes for the figures on China compiled by Judith Bannister, for example.

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James Kroeger 11.07.09 at 7:57 pm

Henri Vieuxtemps: It’s not that perceptions differ, it’s the realities themselves that differ. Reality of New York City has almost nothing in common with reality of, say, a small Tasmanian village.Yes, environmental realities themselves differ, but human needs are universal and constant. Getting your need for food satisfied in Tasmania will require that you use means that are dramatically different from those embraced by New Yorkers .

Another thing that accounts for the different ‘values’ people embrace is the fact that some people are right and other people are mistaken (or both are mistaken) re: their perceptions of the best means to employ to get their needs satisfied.

Yet another complication that leads many people to believe [incorrectly] that ‘different people have different needs’ is the fact that many people confuse means-to-ends (e.g., money) with ends-in-themselves.

When these and other variables are accounted for, what you are left with is the observable fact that all humans being born with the same identical needs (because a need is something that humans can neither create nor destroy).

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Ceri B. 11.07.09 at 8:28 pm

Matthijs: It only makes sense to criticize statistics if there are better ones available. This can’t be right, can it? Surely there are times when the right response is “We lack data on which to speculate, let alone draw conclusions from, and the only useful tasks now are to gather better data and in the meantime refrain from speculating on untrustworthy grounds.” Otherwise there’d be a general duty to proceed with analysis of every asserted datum, and I can’t see how that’d hold up.

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jeremy 11.07.09 at 8:33 pm

matthijs krul: what a superb rendition of the cold, hyper-rationalist slave-driver! orwell couldn’t have written it any better! bravo! bravo!

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.07.09 at 11:16 pm

James 125: I don’t know if biological needs are important here at all; I believe it’s the social and socioeconomic needs and circumstances that define morality. For example: in a small tribe avoiding conception may be immoral (the Onan story in the bible), while in today’s China having more than one child is.

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Matt 11.07.09 at 11:55 pm

It only makes sense to criticize statistics if there are better ones available.

There’s perhaps something to this, but not too much, surely. For one, “better ones available” might not be easy to find out. For example, it turns out that public records available in the Soviet Union (reported in Pravda and the like) were much more accurate accounts of the Soviet economy and agricultural output in the 70’s and 80’s than were the US State Department’s (and the CIA’s) estimations. But, the State Department still has a policy of doing all of its own estimations and not using public sources. Now, maybe they did a better job on China than they did on the Soviet Union, but I’d want independent reasons to think that’s so before I gave much credence to their figures. (Maybe we have this- I don’t know about the particular case.) My point, though, is that when we know people have produced dodgy figures in the past, and might have some reason to do so now, then we have to be very careful using these figures even for estimations. And, when we know figures are dodgy, we have to have some way to account for that (and in which direction) before we can even use them as a starting point.

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Donald Johnson 11.08.09 at 1:13 am

Sebastian, the overlap is not between the best of the communist world and the worst of the West. In Africa, for instance, if you started listing the worst human rights violators and then listed whether they were supported by the US or the USSR, I don’t think you’d see much of a difference. In Central America, US supported regimes were much worse than Nicaragua. In Southeast Asia, East Timor under our ally was (per capita) as bad as Cambodia under Pol Pot.

In your terms, I’d say it’s the comparison of best to best that shows a huge gap between the communist states and “the West”.

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James Kroeger 11.08.09 at 12:44 pm

Henri, #128:

I don’t know if biological needs are important here at all; I believe it’s the social and socioeconomic needs and circumstances that define morality. For example: in a small tribe avoiding conception may be immoral (the Onan story in the bible), while in today’s China having more than one child is.

In the example you provide, Henri, the social need for more/fewer children is derived ultimately from the intrinsic needs that each individual experiences personally. It is a social need driven by [shared] perceptions of how the collective might benefit from informed decisions to either increase or decrease the community’s population. Different environmental variables lead to differing moral prescriptions.

So yes, it is possible for two different communities to develop opposite perceptions of how the members should behave with respect to [their reproductive activities], even though both communities are dealing with precisely the same needs. Homeostasis tells us that our need is not always to obtain more of a particular input.

Yes, there is complexity, but ultimately we are all dealing with the same needs. With perfect knowledge of all the environmental variables involved in our different circumstances, it would be at least theoretically possible for us to develop a moral outlook that would achieve an optimized level of need-satisfaction with respect to all of the members of society.

A difficult challenge? Indeed. As we know all too well from experience, it is not an easy matter to decide which pleasures in life must be given up in order for us to be delivered from addiction/obsession/impoverishment.

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Chris 11.09.09 at 3:15 pm

My claim that “good” and “bad” are not a matter of opinion is based ultimately on the assumption that all human beings have the same needs.

I can’t figure out what you could possibly mean by “needs” that would make this true, or even arguably true. Could you explain in more detail how you define and recognize a need?

Also, regarding your claim that “If we all have the same needs, then we will all be made “better off” [in fact] if/when everybody acts in the same [moral] way.”, how do you judge movement along the Pareto frontier, in which some people’s needs are satisfied better, while others’ are satisfied worse?

Two people both needing food when there is only enough to feed one is one of the simplest such examples. A’s opinion of which person should eat is very likely to be different from B’s, but how does an impartial observer determine which one is objectively right and which is objectively wrong? And regardless of which one has a moral right to the food, it seems hard to argue that they are *both* made better off by acting accordingly.

In fact, it seems to me that this problem reveals that they don’t have the same needs after all: A and B both need to eat, but what this *really* means is that A needs for A to eat, and B needs for B to eat, which are not the same and are in some cases incompatible. Their needs are similar, but not identical, because the sets of circumstances in which they are satisfied are not the same.

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Matthias Wasser 11.11.09 at 4:37 pm

There’s another word for “consequentialism where one consequence is considered so important as to justify any cost:” deontology.

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engels 11.12.09 at 4:22 pm

If Soviet Communists all thought that holding onto power justified any human cost the manner in which the Soviet regimes ultimately dissolved seems a bit hard to explain, idoesn’t it? Wouldn’t you have expected there to have been more of a bang (metaphorically speaking) than a whimper?

Some other examples of consequentialist reasoning to consider. Debates (unbiquitous in the US media) about whether torturing a suspected terrorist is morally justified in a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. Debates in US and UK about abridging civil liberties for the sake of the ‘war on terrorism’. The pre-war discussion of the invasion of Iraq, including iirc the bulk of discussion on this blog, which focussed almost exclusively on attempts to predict the consequences of the invasion (and subsequent attempts to evaluate who ‘got it right’)…

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Sebastian 11.12.09 at 4:55 pm

“If Soviet Communists all thought…”

You rely a bit much on the ‘all’ there, and in the ‘all’ spanning across more than 100 years. It is possible that after seeing 70 years of brutality in a row, they decided to back down from communism.

Again, we are talking about a range of behaviors. The point is that the range appears to skewed far to the ‘more brutal’ side of things for communist countries, such that it only barely overlaps with where the Western-style countries fall on the scale.

Your second paragraph exposes why the consequentialist/non-consequentialist frame that Chris put on the piece was a poor choice (and one not actually used by Halliday). The problem isn’t that Communist countries were hyper-consequentialist while Western ones were consequentialist-free paragons of pure moral reasoning. Halliday’s contention is that Western countries embraced certain moral/citizen rights ideas as something important to be weighed in the consequentialist calculation while Communism actively rejected many of those same categories. Doing so seems to not have benefited citizens very much.

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geo 11.12.09 at 4:57 pm

Matt: Wouldn’t a better formulation be: “Deontology is the belief that the consequences of some action may be so bad that it is impossible to imagine any good consequences of that action that would outweigh them.”

Seems to me that, any way you define it, deontology is still just a variety of consequentialism. But then, what isn’t?

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engels 11.13.09 at 9:20 pm

Halliday’s contention is that Western countries embraced certain moral/citizen rights ideas as something important to be weighed in the consequentialist calculation while Communism actively rejected many of those same categories. Doing so seems to not have benefited citizens very much.

I have a lot of sympathy with this. It’s also an argument that has been made by many prominent Western Marxists and seems quite close to G. A. Cohen’s view. Note though that the USSR did not officially reject human rights and other citizen rights (see the Soviet Constitution or the UNDHR, to which the USSR was a party). In Robert Conquest’s words there was ‘a set of phantom institutions and arrangements which put a human face on the hideous realities: a model constitution adopted in a worst period of terror and guaranteeing human rights, elections in which there was only one candidate, and in which 99 percent voted; a parliament at which no hand was ever raised in opposition or abstention’ (quoted in wikipedia).

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engels 11.13.09 at 10:04 pm

Also, if you use the UNDHR as your yardstick (which includes among human rights the right to health care, the right to work, the right to food, shelter, education, etc) capitalism, whether considered in its specific USian form or as a global system, really isn’t looking very good.

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