Scalded Chait

by Henry on March 20, 2018

I want to write about other things on Crooked Timber than Jonathan Chait. Really, I do. I have a half-finished essay on The Globalists that is going to be so much more worth your time (if only because the book itself is so good). But since he’s written again today to defend the proposition that we should too be bagging on Political Correctness Gone Mad, it’s worth spending a few minutes pointing out quite how bizarre his understanding of the threat actually is.

Chait’s quite straightforward claim is that if the true awful force of political correctness were unconstrained, it would whisk us all up and deposit us in the gulag.

all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow the same basic structure. These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

In the contemporary United States, these ideas are confined by the fact that only in certain communities (like college campuses) does the illiberal left have the power to implement its vision, and even there it is constrained by the U.S. Constitution. If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.

Since this quote is not quite Gulag-y enough for some of our commenters, here’s Chait again, making the point even more explicit:

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. (For those inclined to defend p.c. on the grounds that racism and sexism are important, bear in mind that the forms of repression Marxist government set out to eradicate were hardly imaginary.)

American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

Now I think that it’s perfectly fair to argue with and against student activists. They can be idiots (as can every human being; as can the professors and administrators who they are railing against). But even when they are idiots, they are not a Gestapo in the making. The notion that when the Political Correctness Police come to power, people like Chait are going to be hauled off to the camps for compulsory gender reassignment surgery (after having been convicted in mass show trials of Gross Heteronormativity in the First Degree) is … well, actually, it’s quite mad.

Furthermore, it’s politically toxic. On the one hand, Chait holds himself out as the practitioner of a liberalism devoted to “permeability, [and] openness to evidence and diverse perspectives.” On the other, he wants to make out that the people who are to his left on race and gender are a crowd of neo-authoritarians in the making, who will kulakize the lot of us if they are ever let anywhere near “the machinery of the state.” One is left with the impression that Chait’s proposed coalition for taking on the right consists of a few middle aged white guys, all former staff writers or contributing editors to The New Republic When It Was Really The New Republic, who alone are both intelligent enough to understand the true commitment to liberalism at the heart of the American dream, and brave enough to defend it against the zealots to their left and to their right. Likely, that is a quite unfair summation of what Chait wants. But if Chait continues to insist on demonizing everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates on leftwards, it’s what he is going to get.

{ 75 comments }

1

des von bladet 03.20.18 at 3:25 pm

Some would argue that middle-aged white men giving bolshy students a double-barreled dose of what’s-for is the defining literary genre of our times. Others would also say it is, except for sharply-opposed reasons.

(I hold, at the risk of CIVILISATIONAL NEGLIGENCE, that it probably isn’t, but nobody much pays me nuch mind anyhow.)

2

BGGB 03.20.18 at 3:31 pm

On the one hand, Chait holds himself out as the practitioner of a liberalism devoted to “permeability, [and] openness to evidence and diverse perspectives.” On the other, he wants to make out that the people who are to his left on race and gender are a crowd of neo-authoritarians in the making

:: applause gif ::

3

Jerry Vinokurov 03.20.18 at 3:41 pm

I don’t really see the point of taking Chait seriously; he’s not a serious person, he’s one of those “everything I don’t like is the same thing,” people, except the things he doesn’t like are two things, the right and the left. He has to punch left because he knows that an ascendant left wing would make his brand of centrist drivel entirely irrelevant, and Jon Chait is nothing if not conscious of his career. If he was at least willing to engage with any of the ideologies that he thinks are a straight path to the gulag, he might be worth talking to or about, but he’s not; he knows nothing of Marxism or the left generally and doesn’t care to know. He’s a useless media appendage who hangs around for no reason other than that he’s been doing it for ages, which, come to think of it, describes a bunch of the 90s-era TNR dullards from his cohort.

4

politicalfootball 03.20.18 at 3:55 pm

If you really carry political correctness to its logical extreme, and the US starts imposing restrictions and defining the views that are appropriate to express in public, we could wind up being like … Canada.

5

Antonin 03.20.18 at 4:11 pm

“I want to write about other things on Crooked Timber than Jonathan Chait. Really, I do.”

There.

This sentence also deserves to be extended to the whole attention-capturing right-wing media economy, which is literally vying for our brain cycles in an effort to keep us discussing trite non-issues like campus cultures or middle eastern fashion rather than the crucial near-cataclysmic crises facing the planet.

And sadly, to be consistent, Henry’s first sentence extends also to the cottage industry on the Left of treating this vast noise-making as worth mining for “takes”.

6

asd 03.20.18 at 4:23 pm

people like Chait are going to be hauled off to the camps for compulsory gender reassignment surgery

Nah, they’ll just refuse to let him speak anywhere, and disrupt him when he tries. That’s totally fine. Because, you know, it’s not like they’re hauling him off for compulsory gender reassignment surgery.

7

Ian Maitland 03.20.18 at 4:36 pm

Thanks for sharing this. I had missed it.

But, no, your complacency is shocking. The student activists are not just idiots, they are nature’s little Nazis or Red Guards or Islamic Revolutionary Guard. They are the book burners. In another time and place, they would have been the first students to confront Jewish professors and to hound them out of their classrooms. They are fanatics who gleefully denounced and humiliated their teachers (and parents) in the Cultural Revolution.

The technical ideological differences between today’s student activists and those of the Nazi era are just that –technicalities. What the two have in common is far more important — their totalizing ideologies, their clenched minds, their zeal and thuggery, their relentless persecution of deviants, their purity tests, and more. The similarities between alt-right and the antifa far outweigh their differences.

And always the activists have had their groupies among middle aged white guys (or their functional equivalents) who excuse the activists’ excesses on the grounds of their immaturity, their idealism, their selflessness, their rejection of materialism.

Never again!

8

Lord 03.20.18 at 4:47 pm

What is striking is how one form of political correctness just replaces another, from McCarthyism, to nationalistic jingoism and standing for the anthem, with only a choice between them.

9

JFA 03.20.18 at 5:42 pm

While I think there should be some concern with speech norms on college campus, it is generally overblown, though I will say this concerned me a bit: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/belgium-sexism-law-public-place-man-first-convicted-brussels-fined-police-gender-a8242706.html

10

Adam Hammond 03.20.18 at 5:56 pm

I teach at a major US university. I see many colleagues up in arms about pc-ness. Whenever I look into a case, I see a comfortable person getting criticized (often unfairly), and crying about it.

But what I don’t see are cases where a comfortable academic has actually been materially harmed by a pc uprising. I know some people have had to change jobs, and that is disruptive, but they are still FINE — well off, in fact.

I haven’t paid close attention, so I am honestly asking for the examples. Who has been unfairly and significantly harmed by an overly aggressive pc crusade?

11

L2P 03.20.18 at 6:25 pm

Shorter Chait: Yeah, Political Correctness as I understand it doesn’t hurt anybody right now, but a different Political Correctness, if given the absolute power of the Soviet KGB, would be pretty dang troubling, amirite?

12

nastywoman 03.20.18 at 6:44 pm

– the problem for this Chait character is that all ”liberal” people and otherwise have started to reject the illiberal notion propagated by US Conservatives of free HATE speech as a positive good enjoyed by all bad citizens.

And as he makes this crazy political play with it:
”MARXIST”!
SCARE!! SCARE!!! –
somebody perhaps should tell him ON TWITTER – that ”Marx” was a dude who never ever would have joined a club which would have accepted him.
And as I don’t do nonsense like Twitter – perhaps somebody who likes to ”zwitscher” should ”zwitscher” him?

13

bob mcmanus 03.20.18 at 6:48 pm

Antonio Negri, “Constitituent Republic,” Radical Thought in Italy, Virno & Hardt 1996

“It is here that the potential of a new fascism reveals itself— a
postmodern fascism, which has little to do with Mussolinian alliances, with the illog-
ical schemata of Nazism, or the cowardly arrogance of Petainism. Postmodern fas-
cism seeks to match itself to the realities of post-Fordist labor cooperation, and seeks
at the same time to express some of its essence in a form that is turned on its head.
In the same way that the old fascism mimicked the mass organizational forms of
socialism and attempted to transfer the proletariat’s impulse toward collectivity into
nationalism (national socialism or the Fordist constitution), so postmodern fascism
seeks to discover the communist needs of the post-Fordist masses and transform
them, gradually, into a cult of differences, the pursuit of individualism, and the
search for identity—all within a project of creating overriding despotic hierarchies
aimed at constantly, relentlessly, pitting differences, singularities, identities, and indi-
vidualities one against the other. Whereas communism is respect for and synthesis
of singularities, and as such is desired by all those who love peace, the new fascism
(as an expression of the financial command of international capital) would produce
a war of all against all; it would create religiosity and wars of religion, nationalism
and wars of nations, corporative egos and economic wars.”

14

Ian Maitland 03.20.18 at 7:03 pm

Adam @ 10:

Well, it depends what counts as harm in your book. Loss of a limb? Being violently assaulted? Dismissal without a buyout or generous severance?

Let’s not get semantic about it. What do you call the firing of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying at Evergreen State College? Or Amy Wax being barred from teaching a first year law class at Penn?

I also teach at a major US university. After one student complained anonymously that I made him or her feel “unsafe” and agitation by “more than one or two” other students (out of about 120), I was yanked from teaching two classes.

I am not crying about it. I am shedding tears for the real losers — the other students — who are taught bowdlerized and expurgated classes by faculty who have let themselves be mau-maued into silence.

First they come for the libertarians ….

15

john c. halasz 03.20.18 at 7:04 pm

@10:

Steven Salaita

16

politicalfootball 03.20.18 at 7:28 pm

They are the book burners. In another time and place, they would have been the first students to confront Jewish professors and to hound them out of their classrooms.

There actually have been book burners, and there is literally nothing that would stop these kids if they wanted to burn books. They don’t burn books solely because they don’t want to. No other reason.

There are actually people who speak out against Jewish professors. It is a convention of white people that we don’t call them “PC,” because that term is used as a bludgeon against, well, Jewish professors, among other people.

The threat to free speech on college campuses and elsewhere is coming almost exclusively from the right. As Chait points out, Bouie wrote well about this — but not well enough, apparently, to deserve a substantive response from Chait.

I’ve got to give this one to Chait, though:

Many of the anti-anti-PC-niks, while conceding that it’s wrong to shout down speakers or close down newspapers, use the moral power of some other issue to make their case. Because we have too many anti-PC columns, they insist, we have too few columns on some worthier subject.

If Bret Stephens weren’t constructing a false equivalence between the way leftists and rightists treat free speech, he’d be doing some other ridiculous thing. It’s not like there’s an opportunity cost associated with some particular bit of nonsense from David Brooks — if he weren’t writing about the scourge of political correctness, he’d be writing stupidly about something else.

Chait, on the other hand, really does have useful things to say, and it’s a shame that at a young age, this issue imprinted itself on him.

17

Chip Daniels 03.20.18 at 7:28 pm

I’m wondering when and where this Golden Age of robust, iconoclastic free speech was occurring on college campuses.

Like the dog-in-the-microwave urban legend, it is always just assumed to have happened just out of sight, not quite first hand but close enough to have the ring of actual memory.

18

politicalfootball 03.20.18 at 7:40 pm

What Chait fails to grasp is that liberal intolerance on campus is interesting primarily because it is so unusual. Everyone understands that free speech isn’t a conservative value, so nobody but liberals will mind this bit of routine business by a congressman and a school.

19

Stephen 03.20.18 at 7:49 pm

From my part of the world, J Chait is not a major or even minor figure. I know almost nothing about him. But is he accurately quoted as writing “The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement” that does raise a few questions:

Are there Marxist governments that have not in fact turned massively repressive? I suspect, not being omniscient, that there may have been some: please enlighten me. If there were some, is that because they were not firmly in power, were not in power for long, or for some other reason?

Does Marxist ideology in fact prioritise class justice, or in the Marxist-Leninist version the interests of the Party, over individual rights? If not, why not?

What allowance for legitimate disagreement is in fact made by Marxists? (I do realise that “legitimate” is a very elastic word: it might, perhaps, cover disagreement only by other Marxists. Also, “Marxist” is itself a very slippery term.)

In short, why was Chait wrong?

20

Lupita 03.20.18 at 8:23 pm

@Stephen

In Latin America, there is Allende’s Chile and Cuba and, without either being paragons of virtuous liberalism, I would say that they were both victims of American aggression for geopolitical reasons rather than for any massive human rights violations.

Currently, we have Laos and Vietnam and former socialist states include Mongolia, East Germany and Mozambique. I don’t know how liberal these states are or were, but I don’t think they are much worse that states that the US looks kindly to or to the US itself, what with all those wars, torture, and renditions.

I personally am a socialist and I am not illiberal, it is just that I do not consider liberalism revolutionary anymore, as it was in the 19th century. I see no contradiction between liberalism and socialism, just that socialism has to build upon the gains already made by the liberal revolutions. This notion that you have to choose one or another, and destroy one in order to have the other, I find ridiculous.

21

politicalfootball 03.20.18 at 8:38 pm

18: The thing you and Chait are missing is that every single Marxist government was a Marxist government. In the entire history of the world — indeed, in the millions of planets that might harbor intelligent life — there has not been a single instance of a jurisdiction being governed by communists that was not, in fact, governed by communists.

There is no Marxist government in the US, nor is there any plausible risk of their being one — not in the country as a whole and not in any state.

That said, Crosby, Minnesota seems to have survived its experiment with communism without any undue oppression.

22

William Berry 03.20.18 at 8:40 pm

First, kulakization. Then, dekulakization. You can’t win!

Also, what Jerry V. said.

And Professor Maitland is nothing if not consistent. Foolishly, hobgoblinishly so. Some variation on the same theme every time he comes out from under his bridge!

23

Chip Daniels 03.20.18 at 8:41 pm

@18
Well, part of the premise Chait is using, is what I call the econometric view of history, where choosing economic structure A yields the inevitable result A’, while choosing structure B yields the inevitable result B’.
In this view, the political ideology is completely deterministic.
Cultural choices, religious movements, and interactions between institutions and organizations are irrelevant; China and Russia reached the same horrifying ends entirely due to their embrace of Marxist ideas.

This view of course, is never to be applied to non-Communist societies.
Why Haiti and Norway have radically different outcomes despite both embracing private ownership of capital is a mystery for the ages.

24

D Franklin 03.20.18 at 8:55 pm

Ian Maitland, are you seriously suggesting that “trans people should be listened to about their own gender” and “trans people should be killed”, that “people of colour should be listened to about their experiences of marginalisation, and we should try to counteract that marginalisation” and “people of colour are subhuman and should be killed” are – and I quote – ‘technicalities’? That’s an INTERESTING definition of technicality you have there.

25

Layman 03.20.18 at 8:59 pm

Ian Maitland: “Or Amy Wax being barred from teaching a first year law class at Penn?”

Amy Wax made claims that were obviously false, the nature of which called into question her ability to be fair to minority students. Is it your argument that 1) challenging obviously false claims and 2) pointing out openly offered sentiments that evidence prejudice is what is meant by “PC” behavior? If so, how is it distinguishable from reason?

Also, she has been barred from teaching that class by the administration, for those reasons, not by PC students. Do try to keep up.

26

William Berry 03.20.18 at 9:02 pm

@Stephen:

Nice straw-man. That Chait is right about historically instant cases of the Marxist state is trivially true.

What he is wrong about is that campus “PC” is remotely comparable.

27

Rapier 03.20.18 at 9:08 pm

I have no real impression of Chait so I went to see a bit of his latest output. Hardly all terrible. A sort of pro forma reasonableness. Apparently biding his time till the NY Times editorial page calls. Not exactly a hanging offense. Somebody’s got to do it.

Whenever reasonable Liberals start waxing about the flaws of Liberals in print I always try to imagine how they would have covered the run up to the vote on the Enabling Act of 1933. I always suppose they would have politely applauded the efforts of the SPD to take part in the vote.

28

Stephen 03.20.18 at 9:08 pm

Typo mangled grammar, third sentence. Should be “if he is accurately quoted”.

Should stress, I know almost nothing of Chait. If argument is “this man is an all-round scoundrel”, well, for all I know that may well be so. But did he write the words complained of, and if so was he wrong?

29

ph 03.20.18 at 9:47 pm

“One is left with the impression that Chait’s proposed coalition for taking on the right consists of a few middle aged white guys, all former staff writers or contributing editors to The New Republic When It Was Really The New Republic, who alone are both intelligent enough to understand the true commitment to liberalism at the heart of the American dream, and brave enough to defend it against the zealots to their left and to their right. Likely, that is a quite unfair summation of what Chait wants.”

This is not only fair, but accurate. It’s astonishing that support for the Iraq debacle is not applied more rigorously as a test, not for wisdom of any kind, but for basic humanity and common sense. Chait not only supported the disaster, he demonized those with the basic wit to clearly see the folly and pain ahead. He’s both an idiot and an a-hole. That list, of course, includes so many of America, Britain, Australia, and Canada’s best and brightest, so many of the truly clever and moral people – the, well – you know – responsible types in government, academia, and the media who really do need to be in charge of things at all times. As an individual, Chait is insignificant, but he is representative of a class that is fighting tooth and nail to regain the perch currently occupied by the Usurper and his minions.

As for the more offensive PC types, my understanding is that they remain a vocal, but often, offensive minority. Libraries should have Mark Twain and Bill Burrows, and de Sade and Marx, and any number of writers certain to offend and challenge us on any number of fronts.

Books that challenge are thinking and values are FAR more important than those that do not. You’d think most folks would get that, and I suspect most do – given a clear choice.

30

ph 03.20.18 at 9:50 pm

A simple sentence and yet – my propensity for error remains intact ‘our’ thinking. I blame the caps.

31

JBL 03.20.18 at 9:57 pm

Stephen, Chait is wrong in linking any of the things he’s writing about to the behavior of American college students. (This is not hard, it was clearly spelled out in the post at the top.)

32

Mario 03.20.18 at 10:20 pm

I’m of the opinion that a look at actual, concrete facts is the basis of a solid understanding. So, here are your potential Gulag operators, reading slogans from an iphone.

These people are a major PR problem for the left, but not much more. That’s bad enough, though, IMO.

33

Foster Boondoggle 03.20.18 at 10:51 pm

I think a big part of Chait’s motivation is being missed. He’s concerned to a large extent about the fact that no-platforming and the rest of the campus “PC culture” is a tactical error.

“The right is attempting to discredit liberalism by attaching it to the illiberal left, and the proper response, both morally and politically, is to separate the two. It’s obvious to me why conservatives want everybody who’s alienated by the callout culture to self-identify as a conservative. It’s less obvious to me why liberals should also want that.”

He’s been on this theme for a long time, and the polling showing that the US right has become significantly more hostile to higher ed in the last few years is evidence that it’s a legitimate worry.

It’s hardly the biggest worry we’ve got here in the US of A. (Though the recent attempt by some Our Revolution types to “no platform” Hillary Clinton at Rutgers ought to give one pause.) But given that US politics appears to be closely balanced between a moderate center/left and a (currently ascendant) viciously reactionary hard right, it seems appropriate to worry that the left is being tactically obtuse.

Of course, if your politics are hard left, maybe heightening the contradictions is a sound strategy.

34

Dr. Hilarius 03.20.18 at 11:10 pm

Maitland @ 14: Profs. Weinstein and Heying were not fired from Evergreen. They sued Evergreen and then resigned after being offered a $500,000 settlement from the state. But don’t let that get in the way of a good rant.

35

Kiwanda 03.20.18 at 11:42 pm

Almost as if in response, kinda, at least as regards whataboutery.

36

floopmeister 03.21.18 at 12:21 am

To answer 19 – Wikipedia is your friend:

The Communist Party in Kerala is unique because it has functioned under the conditions of a democracy, relying on popular support to remain in power. Unlike many other communist governments, the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Kerala did not crush political dissent. CPI’s 1957 constitution stated it would allow the existence of opposing parties after it had parliamentary majority. Party leaders, like Namboodiripad, did not like the idea of using military force to remain in power because it would reflect poorly on the CPI as a whole on a global stage. This reliance on the people’s opinions created a benevolent communist government, but it also made it more difficult to enact radical reforms. Therefore, the reforms of the CPI in Kerala were mainly moderately socialist.

Communism in Kerala refers to the strong presence of communist ideas in the Indian state of Kerala. In addition to Kerala, the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura have had democratically elected multiple Marxist governments, and change takes place in the government by regular multiparty electoral process. Communism of Kerala has provided Indian communist stalwarts such as E. M. S. Namboodiripad and A. K. Gopalan.

Today the two largest communist parties in Kerala politics are the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (which split from the Communist Party of India in 1964). The Left Democratic Front is a coalition of left-wing political parties in the state of Kerala and is one of the two major political coalitions in Kerala, each of which have been in power alternatively for the last two decades. The coalition consists of the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (India), the Janata Dal (Secular), the Nationalist Congress Party, the Indian National League, the Kerala Congress (Anti-merger Group), and the Indian National Congress (Socialist).

Lived and worked in three communist/Socialist countries (Laos, PRC and Vietnam) and travel to them (and Kerala) regularly. People like Chait demonstrate an inverse relationship between the strength with which they hold their opinions and the extent to which those opinions are informed by actual experience.

37

Ian Maitland 03.21.18 at 1:57 am

Dr, Hilarius @ 34

Hi again! I think that is a distinction without a difference. If you want, let’s settle on calling it constructive firing or dismissal.

In employment law, constructive dismissal, also called constructive discharge or constructive termination, occurs when an employee resigns as a result of the employer creating a hostile work environment. … The employee may resign over a single serious incident or over a pattern of incidents.

38

Jerry Vinokurov 03.21.18 at 2:21 am

Does Marxist ideology in fact prioritise class justice, or in the Marxist-Leninist version the interests of the Party, over individual rights? If not, why not?

What constitutes “Marxist ideology?” What specific text by Marx would lead you to believe the former?

What allowance for legitimate disagreement is in fact made by Marxists? (I do realise that “legitimate” is a very elastic word: it might, perhaps, cover disagreement only by other Marxists. Also, “Marxist” is itself a very slippery term.)

This question is entirely meaningless, as there’s no one true thing that Marxists are “required” to believe on this issue (or most other issues either).

In short, why was Chait wrong?

39

mrmr 03.21.18 at 3:06 am

It is odd that this post frames itself as being occasioned by Chait putting out a new article, and yet it bears no substantive relation to that column — instead using the occasion to lay out some entirely different quotes from him and to argue that they’re stupid. Those quotes are substantially more tendentious than anything in the column, which so far as I can see makes some reasonable points about the dialectic of the anti-PC and anti-anti-PC debate: namely, that there’s no high ground to be had between the “sides” with respect to who’s wasting more time churning out their pet peeve-y articles, and that anyway “why are you looking at us, the right wing is worse” is a pretty uninspired defense of anything on the merits. That’s not a definitive intervention or anything, but both points seem sensible enough on the merits.

Neither of those points requires embracing the flamboyant claim that the students of today are hardline authoritarians who, if given the chance, would be happy to liquidate the kulaks. I’m perfectly willing to believe that Chait really did say that, somewhere in the Chait corpus, and furthermore, that it was stupid when he said it. But I don’t know what that would convince me of in the present moment, aside from the fact that Chait had an excitable moment and that perhaps he should let himself cool down a little before hitting publish.

Psychologizing people is rude, and so this is rude, but I suspect that public intellectuals, in engaging with (and annoying) each other over time, can wind up falling into a low key feud mentality. I mean, writing posts about who blocked who on twitter and all that seems easy to read in such a light. And that mentality lends itself to putting forth the crucial and most important point: that we all understand that Chait is an idiot and probably a jerk too. It’s unfortunate that the natural way to assemble evidence in support of this argumentative goal pulls in the direction of focusing on the dumbest things he’s ever said, rather that the opposite goal of focusing on the most reasonable ones. Which is kind of a bummer.

There seems to be a ritual in the anti(anti)PC debate, where authors find space somewhere in their intervention to offer perfunctory gestures to the ostensible genuine points the other side has (okay, the Reedies Against Racism kids were officially the worst and maybe not everything is “violence,” sure racism is real and kids are often excitable, etc., whatever; –in the OP this happens in the second to last paragraph)–but this recognition of a principled complaint is passed over quickly. In terms of what’s over- and under- represented in the public debate, I wouldn’t mind seeing a piece that greatly expands those perfunctory concessions and considers at length what the author would say to their most reasonable opponent, rather than rhetorically excusing them from the scene entirely in order to get on to the fun bits of attacking their least reasonable one.

In a case like this, the most and least reasonable opponents might even be the same person–i.e., the Chait that gestures wildly toward the gulag as against the Chait that’s made a career out of the memorable bits of On Liberty.

40

bianca steele 03.21.18 at 1:24 pm

I find it very difficult to get into the mindset of someone who finds Chait’s argument incomprehensible. Either society, culture, structure or whatever you want to call it, can be oppressive, and should be opposed/exposed by a left, or only the state and/or economic sphere should be opposed. If the culture can only be accepted, then—given that the ancien regime disappeared long ago—it’s up to each individual to cope in whatever individualistic way she can create for herself. And this seems quite a bit closer to Chait than to what Henry would seem be defending as the not-anything-like-a-gulag left. (I refrained from saying this on the other post because it seemed rude in that context, and the whole gulag thing is not going to fit in a comment box). The argument here—it seems to be different elsewhere—is apparently that we ought to allow the kids to act like commissars (a term I think I’m borrowing from Tim Burke), not because it’s right to have commissars and kids do the best job, but because being stupid is what kids do and it’s good for us to be afraid of them. If leftists want to distinguish themselves from liberals, something more than “they’re obliged to agree with me and they won’t” seems called for. (Personal note: I attended a college reputed for lefty activity and lefty faculty a couple of years before “PC” became a thing—the idea that we were generationally expected to do something even our elders on the left considered stupid and pointless , just because we didn’t know better yet, wasn’t unvoiced, even by some of those elders. Now, maybe all that offloading responsibility onto the young is on the brink of bearing fruit, though I’m not holding my breath.) But when our pundit class is reduced to writing about writing about writing about writing, it’s hard to see why no more writing would be a bad thing.

I also, very honestly, find it very difficult to grasp what Henry, and possibly other commenters and/or front-pagers here, mean by “left.” I did come here, though, immediately after reading Chait’s new piece, to see if he had commented.

41

bianca steele 03.21.18 at 1:34 pm

There are a number of comments here I disagree with. I imagine someone might claim that Chait agrees with them. I don’t know whether or not he does. If he does, there are a number of arguments that can be made without going so far as “I don’t expect better from a person who rejects our side’s superior leftist ideas.”

42

Sonny Jim 03.21.18 at 4:13 pm

Chait’s not the only one doing this, by any means, obviously. There’s also the sociological pairing of Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, authors of The Rise of Victimhood Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). They’re fond of the phrase “concept creep,” which in their writing seems to do the same sort of work:

Victimhood culture encourages […] concept creep. Conditions that breed a high sensitivity to slight encourage people to describe things they find offensive in the strongest possible terms – not a mere insult, but a verbal assault; not an awkward statement, but a microaggression; not just irritating, but oppressive. Victimhood culture also involves a tendency to rely on third parties – complaining to authorities or to the public at large – and this too encourages people to use the most severe terms available. Language that emphasizes and exaggerates one’s degree of victimization becomes a tool for convincing others to join one’s side.

So there seems to be a slippery slope assumption operating in this kind of discourse; a sense that, once “liberal” safeguards surrounding decorum and civility are removed, it’s a discursive war of all against all that will (perhaps inevitably) slip into actual, physical conflict.

To be honest, I think there are some valid insights here about the nature of “call out culture,” I’d just prefer if I didn’t have to go to extreme-centrist liberals like Chait or Haidt or libertarians (which is what I assume Campbell and Manning are) to find them.

43

dax 03.21.18 at 4:30 pm

“But even when they are idiots, they are not a Gestapo in the making.”

I don’t know anything about Chait, so I can only reference the quotes the OP provides. Chait concludes in the first quoted passage: “If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.” That doesn’t seem to be a claim that illiberal forces are going to be the Gestapo, does it? It’s far more measured.

It seems to be likely that Chait’s substantive points are that certain ideas and actions are “illiberal”, and “illiberal” ideas and actions may have “bad” consequences. I have no idea whether he actually provides arguments and evidence for these points. It seems there may be a disagreement on the counterfactual how bad the consequences might be in a country with a legal and political system like the U.S. should certain things happen (the “illiberal forces were to gain more power”), but counterfactuals like this are mostly just air, of the sort where nobody can actually prove the point, so everybody can feel like they’re right, no?

44

Peter Dorman 03.21.18 at 4:48 pm

I do think efforts to shut down speech are dangerous. I’ve seen this process first-hand many times over the course of my life at many scales, from small political groups to large institutions. I agree tactically with Chait, but I think his analysis is utterly wrong.

Illiberalism is not a consequence of left wing thinking, Marxist or otherwise. I do have a beef with Marxism over the concept of objective interests, which I regard as anti-democratic, and which has been marshaled to justify grotesque extremes of repression. This framing of politics does not single out speech, however; it can be used to attack any activity that interferes with governance by the party that deems itself the agent of the “true” interests of the masses. But that’s not what Chait is talking about, is it? (And one could believe in the doctrine of objective interests knowable by those who understand the “correct” theory and still hold off from repression on the grounds that the means shapes the ends, as Rosa Luxemburg and many other democratic Marxists did.)

Most of the repression of speech I’ve seen has been in the context of good ol’ fashioned power grabs, more or less orthogonal to ideology. Any faction might do this.

To the extent that there’s a particularly leftist justification for shutting down speech, it comes from the emergence of radical subjectivism in a strain of left thinking. According to this view, subjective experience is the highest form of knowledge, such that there is no value to the utterances of someone from Group Y about the problems experienced by members of Group X. In this context, the main effect of speech emanating from Y is to cause either positive or negative emotional reactions in the Xers, which makes it a potential form of oppression in itself. To put it differently, in this view some speech is bad not because of the actions it might lead to but because the immediate experience of hearing the speech is personally painful.

Now that take on “painful” speech is not wrong in general: speech can do that. And certainly some speech does that so intensely and with so little countervailing benefit that it is justified to shut it down—that’s what we mean by hate speech. We can debate where we would draw the line, and I’m sure we wouldn’t all agree. The problem with the subjectivist take on speech is that the line is drawn on the basis of the binary “is this speech painful to oppressed people?”, which is a terrible test. (We need people to tell us things that are painful to hear but we need to hear anyway.)

I think people of a progressive or leftist outlook should be aware of the emergence of radically subjectivist ideology and push against it, not only because its anti-liberal aspects are pernicious, but also because it is ultimately anti-political. It is not about achieving collective action to overcome urgently needed political and social change but solely changes in individual belief and behavior. In sloganeering terms, the personal is political, but the political is not just, or even primarily, the personal.

45

Camembert 03.21.18 at 5:32 pm

@33

“a big part of Chait’s motivation”

Chait was wrong about the Iraq War. On a deep level, this disqualifies him from ever offering his opinion on any topic. So he has a profound personal interest in discrediting the people who were right about the Iraq War or their ideological successors. That’s pretty much how I read his articles about the left.

46

b9n10nt 03.21.18 at 8:01 pm

Peter Dorman @ 44:

I’m skeptical of the way that today’s anti-PC slippery-slopers speak of a “logic” to a “strain of thinking” that has historical effects. Just as you implied that the concept of “objective interests” was tangential to the actual repression justified in its name (in the case of Rosa Luxembourg, we see there’s no necessary relation between the concept and it’s inhumane application), “radical subjectivism” is unlikely to put on pants and walk off the page, so to speak. And yet “pernicious” and “anti-political” are predictions about the future in meat-space, are they not?

Of course, there can be valid slippery slope arguments. When the slippery slope is a real thing that has actually played out in our recent history (racism —> racial oppression), for example. But anti-PC fears about the illiberal left resemble the tendency of the “comfortable” to treat a potential harm that would threaten them as more real than an actual harm that damages others.

47

b9n10nt 03.21.18 at 8:31 pm

I do think efforts to shut down speech are dangerous.

Yes. Which is why we should criticize every political campaign, every advertisement, every news column, and every academic syllabus that isn’t the product of consensus among all equally-empowered stakeholders.

I mean: there is no distinction between “I can talk and you can’t” and “We can both talk but I’ll have a microphone and you’ll have a sock in your mouth”.

I don’t want to downplay the valuable protections for free speech that exist where they exist. Let’s continue to outlaw “I can talk and you can’t” but realize that’s only a necessary first step toward taking away the “microphone and the sock”.

True advocates of free speech should be radical egalitarians.

48

William Berry 03.21.18 at 9:34 pm

True advocates of free speech should be radical egalitarians.

+googolplex

49

MFB 03.23.18 at 11:37 am

Allow me, please, to parse something which Chait said:

These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

Now, the first point here is, as far as I know, false. Leftists for the most part do not deny that freedom of speech would be desirable. What they claim is that in a radically unequal society, freedom of speech really exists. In other words, they are not questioning the ideal, they are questioning the liberal pretense that the ideal is actually the reality.

The second point is, I would think, trivially true. If there is oppression going on, you’re either for it or against it. It’s not really possible to be neutral. If Chait is arguing for neutrality, he’s actually supporting the oppressors. (Ironically, this was precisely his argument in support of the invasion of Iraq: “We can’t do nothing, because Saddam is a horrible person.”) Now, this can certainly lead to problematic things, because there are degrees of oppression, and degrees of responses to it, and questions of appropriateness — for instance, at the University of Cape Town, shutting down the art school because some amaXhosa students felt that modern art is hostile to what they consider to be their traditional culture was not a positive move on any level. But in principle Chait’s position is abhorrent.

The third point is also obvious. If you take action in support of an oppressor, you are — what? Anyone? That one at the back there, yes, right, you are supporting oppression. And if you take action in opposition to an oppressor? Right. So, basically, Chait’s liberalism appears either to mean that he denies the very existence of oppression, or he denies that anyone has the right to oppose it.

I am not myself much of a liberal, but I doubt that Adam Smith would have agreed with Chait. Ian Smith, on the other hand, would have called him a brother in arms and probably invited him to do propaganda for the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation.

50

Stephen 03.23.18 at 1:41 pm

Floopmeister236: many thanks. I am very happy to learn that in the Indian state of Kerala there has been long-term Communist participation in government without any silencing or oppression of those who disagree: so, it’s possible.

I note, though, that the Communists in the Kerala government were only one part of a multi-party coalition, did not attempt to enact more than moderately socialist reforms, and participated only in a local State government without control of the national courts, police or army. I suspect that may have had something to do with their moderation.

I forget who cited East Germany and Cuba as non-oppressive Communist states. Full marks for creative imagination.

51

Layman 03.23.18 at 2:16 pm

Shorter Stephen: “Those Kerala Communists are no true Scotsmen!”

52

MisterMr 03.23.18 at 3:46 pm

@Stephen 50

The problem is, there have been various flavours of socialists/communists/marxists, some were revolutionary marxists (e.g. Lenin) and some were not (e.g. Hilferding).

The one who were not revolutionary did not create communist dictatorships, and therefore lived in multiparty regimes; but if you only count the ones who created communist dictatorships as “communists” or “marxists” then you have a circular logic were every “true” communist always creates a dictatorship, because if he or she doesn’t then s/he isn’t a true communist.

I’m using Hilferding as an example because he is generally counted as a social democrat, he was boss of the SPD, he was opposed to Stalin, but he was also clearly a marxists who believed in central planning. Here is a citation from

“State Capitalism or Totalitarian State Economy” (1940)
https://www.marxists.org/archive/hilferding/1940/statecapitalism.htm
___________
[…]
Of course, from a social democratic viewpoint the Bolshevik economy can hardly be called “socialist,” for to us socialism is indissolubly linked to democracy. According to our concept, socialization of the means of production implies freeing the economy from the rule of one class and vesting it in society as a whole-a society which is democratically self-governed. We never imagined that the political form of that “managed economy” which was to replace capitalist production for a free market could he unrestricted absolutism. The correlation between the economic basis and the political structure seemed to us a very definite one: namely, that the socialist society would inaugurate the highest realization of democracy. Even those among us who believed that the strictest application of centralized power would be necessary or inevitable for the period of transition, considered this period only temporary and bound to end after the suppression of the propertied classes. Together with the disappearance of classes, class rule was also to vanish – that class rule which we considered the only possible form of political rule in general. “The state is withering away …”
[…]
For this reason the controversy as to whether the economic system of the Soviet Union is “capitalist” or “socialist” seems to me rather pointless. It is neither. It represents a totalitarian state economy, i.e. a system to which the economies of Germany and Italy are drawing closer and closer.
________

53

Z 03.23.18 at 4:09 pm

Stephen, there never existed a non-oppressive regime that had the following two properties: being non-democratic and being dominated by Communists. However, there have been plenty of local and regional democratic governments dominated by Communists that have been non-oppressive (though their actual records is usually rather far from stellar, IMO). Of course, they have been constrained by opposition, regular elections etc. That’s what being democratic means. With the arguable exception of San Marino, there has never been a democratic national government really dominated by Communists, but a coalition of Communists and explicitly marxist Socialists (the former being dominant) held legislative power after the elections of 1945 in France and had the task of writing the Constitution of the newly liberated country. You can have a look at their record for yourself.

Based on this data, I would tend to conclude 1) that Communism is electorally dominant within a democratic country only in very exceptional circumstances (when people can choose different options, they rarely choose Communism) and 2) that the oppressive nature of non-democratic Communist governments is at least as much a property of being a non-democratic government as being a Communist government (the comparisons of Russia pre and post USSR, China pre and post 1985 and Viet Nam pre and post 1995 are surely significant data point in that respect).

54

dax 03.23.18 at 4:50 pm

“If there is oppression going on, you’re either for it or against it. It’s not really possible to be neutral. If Chait is arguing for neutrality, he’s actually supporting the oppressors. “

That’s a good sound bite, but I doubt it’s true. Just take the example where there’s oppression going on *which I don’t know about*. Then presumably I’m neither for nor against and in fact am neutral. And I doubt in my ignorance I’m actually supporting the oppressors.

55

Lupita 03.23.18 at 7:03 pm

I forget who cited East Germany and Cuba as non-oppressive Communist states.

I did. I meant non-Gulagy, non-Hitlery, non-genocidal. I meant simply oppressive as many non-communist states such as all the military regimes in South America: Pinochet, Castelo, and Videla come to mind.

56

Stephen 03.23.18 at 7:40 pm

If we could go back to the beginning of this discussion: Chait wrote that “every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive”. I wondered if this was true.

Floopmeister interestingly cited Kerala as a state where there had for a long time been a partly-Communist state government, with restricted powers, that had not turned massively repressive. I commented that in the circumstances they had no chance to do so.

Layman, seriously misunderstanding Anthony Flew’s argument, declared this to be an example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Rather, the parallel goes like this: All true Scotsmen drink whisky. Hamish MacPherson, currently doing time in HM Prison Barlinnie, and Ian MacTavish, working on contract in Saudi Arabia, do not drink whisky. Does that mean that they are not true Scotsmen, or that they are still true Scotsmen because they would drink whisky if that were possible?

Mister Mr makes, I think, a basic error, as does Chait. They both seem to me to slither between Marxist and Communist. If by Marxist we mean influenced in some way by Marx’s arguments, that covers rather a large range of people, and Chait is wrong (in this, and for all I know in many other things). In as far as social democracy is influenced by Marx – though of course it began as a complete disagreement with one of Marx’s basic ideas – then there have been numerous examples of social democratic governments that have never turned massively repressive. Anyone equating the two should consider that the Communists in 1930s Germany regarded the Social Democrats as their real enemy, in part because they did not intend to turn massively repressive in what the Communists saw as the Marxist interest. That Hilferding, a Social Democrat, did not advocate repression is to his credit. Still, he did want a completely centrally planned economy, and how far that is compatible with the absence of massive repression is uncertain, since the combination has never as far as I know been tried.

I agree with Z that democratic electorates have very rarely chosen Communism, and are not likely to. I’m not convinced by his example of San Marino, a micro-state entirely surrounded by overwhelmingly powerful non-Communist Italy. To quote Wikipedia on San Marino’s history:

“The coalition of 19 Communist and 16 Socialist deputies of parliament fell in April 1957 due to a factional split in the Socialist Party…. New elections were scheduled for September 19 of that same year. Facing defeat at the polls, the Communist-led coalition issued orders on election day to bar members of parliament from gaining access to the parliament building and proclaimed it to be dissolved. This constitutional crisis was resolved by intervention of the Italian government.”

Forgive me for thinking that, without Italian intervention, there would have been yet another example of Communist repression. That Z is right in declaring that non-Communist governments can be repressive, well, who could possibly disagree?

Would I be right in summarising the arguments for and against Chait thus:

Pro. We have in the American left, particularly in some universities, people who are happy to use threats and violence to prevent those they disagree with being heard. They have no power over the courts and the police; but if after (unspecified) political developments they had, it is reasonable they would use that power in accordance with their beliefs.

That does seem to me to be indisputable.

Con. Given the healthy US system of democracy and balance of powers, the chances of the violent repressive Left coming anywhere near power are essentially zero. We’re dealing with students, by definition troublesome and ignorantly rebellious. Semel insanivimus omnes. Leave them to grow up.

Also in my opinion indisputable. But in as far as the intelligent non-repressive Left do not clearly separate themselves from violence, they are handing a valuable gift to their opponents.

57

roger gathmann 03.23.18 at 7:57 pm

Chait should read Marx. Amazingly, Marx’s capital uses, massively, such non-Marxist thinkers as Adam Smith! And quotes the royalist Balzac, among others.
But I don’t expect Chait to actually read. Since his PC stuff landed him his first byline in an article for Reason, he’s pretty much stuck to, oh, the usual line. That is, that PC is terrible, and the discourse of what the “Marxists” target as the “oppressors” never leads to anything but a good debate. In fact, Chait is consistent about this – he loved the way Bush sent over our American Debate team to Iraq and, abhorring the Gulag, engaged in the type of spirited discourse that destroyed the lives of about a million Iraqi peeps, according to the Lancet, and made refugees of another million. But do I think that this is the result of Chaitism? …
Let me think about it.

58

Stephen 03.23.18 at 8:38 pm

Z: sorry to ignore one of your points, I was called away by other work of greater importance and indeterminate duration. You wrote that “a coalition of Communists and explicitly marxist Socialists (the former being dominant) held legislative power after the elections of 1945 in France and had the task of writing the Constitution of the newly liberated country.” 

Well yes, up to a point. The Provisional Government of the French Republic, created in June 1944 and lasting till January 1947, had as successive Chairmen Charles de Gaulle (say no more); Felix Gouin (Socialist but emphatically not Communist); Georges Bidault (eminent non-Communist Resistant, de Gaulle’s and Gouin’s foreign minister, founder of the Christian Democrat MRP, eventually, member of the not-remotely-Communist OAS); Vincent Auriol (eminent Socialist Resistant, President of the Constituent Assemblies that drafted the eventual Constitution of the Fourth Republic); and very briefly Leon Blum (ex-Buchenwald, anti-Communist and anti-Gaullist). Isn’t Wikipedia wonderful?

How you get from that to saying that the Communists were “dominant” and “held legislative power”, I cannot say.

As for a coalition of Communists and Socialists writing the new Constitution of the liberated French Republic, well indeed, what you wrote is strictly true. Nice try, they did. What you did not mention was that this Constitution was submitted to a referendum in May 1946, and decisively rejected. The Constitution eventually approved was very different. You will forgive me for suspecting that had a Marxist coalition held real power, either the referendum would never have been allowed or the votes, counted by the coalition’s observers, would have been over 90% in favour.

59

Stephen 03.23.18 at 9:37 pm

dax@54: furthermore, there are too many cases where one side are actual or potential oppressors, and the other are actually worse or potentially worse oppressors, and third or other sides are actually or potentially even worse, or maybe not …

Welcome to the real world.

60

Collin Street 03.23.18 at 11:24 pm

I do think efforts to shut down speech are dangerous.

Indeed. We shouldn’t talk about such things.

61

Murali 03.24.18 at 12:50 am

MFB @49

What they claim is that in a radically unequal society, freedom of speech really exists. In other words, they are not questioning the ideal, they are questioning the liberal pretense that the ideal is actually the reality.

This is false. The socialist critique of freedom of speech (insofar as I understand it), while couched in terms of questioning “the liberal pretence that the ideal is reality” is in fact questioning the ideal. Insofar as the liberal ideal of freedom is conceived primarily as of being one of mutual non-interference, the socialist critique which points to the supposed inadequacy of non-interference is a critique of the ideal. Even though both use the words freedom, they are talking about different things. Those things might overlap in some places, but it is a bit silly to suppose that they share ideals just because they use the same words. That is, if by freedom of speech liberals mean non-interference with expression and socialists mean fully equal democratic political power then they do have different ideals.

If you take action in support of an oppressor, you are — what? Anyone? That one at the back there, yes, right, you are supporting oppression. And if you take action in opposition to an oppressor?

This is also incredibly stupid. People do not forfeit everything they are morally entitled to the moment they engage in or attempt to engage in oppression. The mere fact that A oppresses B does not make the demands that B is actually making on A reasonable or just. C can legitimately support and oppressor A in defending A’s legitimate claims without supporting A’s oppression. To make an exaggerated example, suppose A supports a ban on SSM. A ban on SSM is clearly oppressive. Suppose B demands that A should not get to vote. This is clearly excessive (since A by assumption is morally entitled to vote). C can support A’s right to vote and therefore support an oppressor A without thereby support oppression even if C supporting A’s right to vote causally contributes to a ban on SSM, hence oppression.

To deny this is to claim either that engaging in oppression forfeits all of your moral rights, or that no one ever has moral rights, or that engaging in oppression forfeits your entitlement to assistance in defending the moral rights you retain or something along those lines. Each option is not only intuitively implausible, there is no good reason to believe that they could be true.

62

b9n10nt 03.24.18 at 6:56 am

Stephen @56:

We have in the American left, particularly in some universities, people who are happy to use threats and violence to prevent those they disagree with being heard. They have no power over the courts and the police; but if after (unspecified) political developments they had, it is reasonable they would use that power in accordance with their beliefs.

I don’t think “happy” makes any descriptive sense. Perhaps you are intending to demonize, here? A sociopath is “happy” to use threats and violence, the rest of us (you and I) are “angry”, “scared”, “frustrated”…maybe “passionate” (but that’s a stretch) when we resort to threats and violence. Can you offer an example of such people being “happy” amidst these threats and actions?

More substantively, do not the security guards and criminal codes that protect both privately-held and government-controlled channels of mass communication constitute “threats and use of violence to prevent those they disagree with being heard”? Without denouncing the principle of free speech -or even while simultaneously praising the principle- both Liberals, the Right, and the Left, are tempted to defend a scarce resource for speech (be it a televison studio or a college campus) with the implicit or explicit use of force.

And just as some in the Left might justify their “no platform”-ing as the necessary act of a weak and threatened interest, Liberalism has too supported flagrant violations of free speech internationally where it has considered itself to be weak and threatened. The complex relationship between liberals and free speech continues, even in domestic matters: see Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

Finally, you more-than-imply that “it is reasonable” to assume that an emergent (American) Leftist order would resemble the spirit of Antifa but not, say, Black Lives Matter or DSA, if only the Left controlled the courts and the police. This seems to be a prediction completely without substance: as if the analysis of politics and history could be reduced to modules in stasis (“the Left”) that cohere and act like chess pieces and move according simple equations (“the most violent faction accrues relative power within as the faction’s power spreads without: it’s a law!”). I’ve made similar types of gross generalizations and tried to turn human affairs into algebra before. You help me see how foolishly I have thought and written.

63

Layman 03.24.18 at 1:30 pm

Stephen: “Layman, seriously misunderstanding Anthony Flew’s argument, declared this to be an example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.”

Nope. It was your argument at 50 – or what passes for an argument – that I was talking about.

64

MisterMr 03.24.18 at 3:32 pm

@Stephen 56
“Mister Mr makes, I think, a basic error, as does Chait.”

No, I think you are making the error, together with Chait.

There are two levels in this discussion, plus I believe a misunderstanding about history.

1st level:
At a purely lexical level, there isn’t really something like a true communism, a true social democracy, a true marxism, or even a true christianity or a true conservatism: these are words that have been used to cover a range of people and ideas, and often used in contradictory ways in different times in different places. Does a red rose smell differently if I call it a social democratic carnation? not really.
So at this first level, we both agree that Stalin->bad, Hilferding->good, we just have a lexical disagreement on the word “communist”, on whether we should have a larger or stricter use of the term.

2nd level:
But in reality, the reason I’m counting Hilferding in and you aren’t is that I see myself as a marxist, a communist, and also a social democrat and a liberal, so counting Hilferding in gives some points to my team, and reflects my political opinions, whereas you are anti-marxist and anti-communist, and you don’t want nice looking guys like Hilferding counted as communists because this would score a point for the other team.
Chait goes beyond this and clearly uses words like “marxists” or “maoists” without any reference to actual beliefs of marxists and maoists. Is he pissed of at the maoists who fought imperialist Japan? or maybe the ones who fought a fascist regime in China? He is only interested in the ones who caused a lot of deaths in China, because he is just using them as a scarecrow to force in his argument against totally non-marxist and non-maoists, but leftish, people.

3rd level:
But historically, I think your distinction between social democrats and communists is also wrong.
Before WW1 there wasn’t really a difference between the two things, although certainly there were more extremist ones and less extremist ones.
But in part because Lenin had a revolution, which scared the shit out of a lot of people in europe, in part because of the extreme condition, and in part because and together with the rise of fascism, those parties split in two groups. In Italy the socialist party split in 1921 between a socialist party, that was what we would now call “social democrats”, and a communist party with strong sympathies for Lenin.
The communists were beaten by the fascists (Hilferding died this way) but also, whereas the socialists either were also beaten or had to collaborate with the fascists.
After WW2, both parties reappeared, but since there was the cold war going on, and the communist parties that reappeared had strong ties with the Soviet Union, the split became more evident, so today we use the word “communist”, or also “marxist” only for the most extremist, pro Stalin or pro Lenin currents; but in reality this distinction is much fuzzier, and also the idea that social democracy “began as a complete disagreement with one of Marx’s basic ideas”, well I think you can find it if you want to look at it from this angle, but you can also see the opposite, personally I think that this is quite bunk.

65

MisterMr 03.24.18 at 3:36 pm

As an add on to my previous comment, @Stephen 56:

I just recently learned that Lenin was the leader of the “Russian Social Democratic Labour Party”, we are lucky that it wasn’t a communist party or he could have instituted a dictatorship in Russia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Social_Democratic_Labour_Party

66

steven t johnson 03.25.18 at 11:10 am

MisterMr@64 wrote “the idea that social democracy ‘began as a complete disagreement with one of Marx’s basic ideas,’ well I think you can find it if you want to look at it from this angle, but you can also see the opposite, personally I think that this is quite bunk.”

Social democracy/socialism defined in opposition to revolution is a thing. It’s not Marxist. Marx on the Paris Commune defended revolution, and like the Jacobins accepted the teachings of the masses and life in preference to ideal theory. Marx’s critique of the Gotha program is also illustrative of the tendency to put practice first. Social democracy/socialism as covert acceptance of class society under cover of fine phrases about universal rights and democracy (abstract, never qualified by class terms.)

Social democrats/socialists showed up recently in Jacobin on the Austro-Marxists. Hilferding was a leader in that sect, so it may be interesting to consult. I thought it was remarkable that the review managed to omit the July 1927 “uprising” or the mass slaughter of demonstrators. Or for that matter the events that triggered it. As usual with Jacobinrag, one must use great caution.

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floopmeister 03.25.18 at 10:43 pm

Floopmeister interestingly cited Kerala as a state where there had for a long time been a partly-Communist state government, with restricted powers, that had not turned massively repressive. I commented that in the circumstances they had no chance to do so.

Not sure what this means – ‘they had no chance to’?

Still sounds like the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy.

Keralan communists are, from what I have both read and experienced, true communists in the Keralan sense of the concept. The model could be described as:

– A set of high material quality-of-life indicators coinciding with low per-capita incomes, both distributed across nearly the entire population of Kerala.
– A set of wealth and resource redistribution programmes that have largely brought about the high material quality-of-life indicators.
– High levels of political participation and activism among ordinary people along with substantial numbers of dedicated leaders at all levels. Kerala’s mass activism and committed cadre were able to function within a largely democratic structure, which their activism has served to reinforce.[2]

The final point is really important – get on a public train or bus in Kerala and you can start a conversation with nearly anyone that would not be out of place on this blog. The local people are educated, engaged and the beneficiaries of a vibrant free press. They are also involved in every level of political life from the village to the state assembly.

We can argue whether this is Communism or SD or Maoism or Socialism or whatever – the fact is it works and it is communism within the context in which it is being practised. They are continually elected because the people like what they are doing – if they showed antidemocratic/autocratic tendencies they would not get elected. The reason they are not ‘antidemocratic’ is thus due to thew well-functioning democracy in which they both participate and support- the only way in which your ‘they have not been allowed to’ makes sense is if we acknowledge the deeply democratic nature of Keralan society, and the brand of left socialist politics that has had such great results there and is therefore widely supported.

Seems pretty straightforward to me.

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floopmeister 03.25.18 at 10:51 pm

Whoops – forgot the ref. for that quote – comes from a great Wikipedia summary of the Keralan model: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerala_model

The BJP has just made big inroads into Kerala in the most recent elections, BTW at the expense of the Communists. Another example of them ‘not being allowed to be repressive’?

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Frederick Guy 03.26.18 at 6:40 am

Beautiful Negri quote there, #13 Bob McManus.

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Z 03.26.18 at 8:43 am

Stephen, I have a hard time figuring what you are getting at, so I’ll just restate my position, in a more abstract and general way.

Communism, as a political movement within countries with robust democratic institutions and traditions, proved to be regularly able to get a sizable minority of voters – albeit only in very specific regions – and proved able to get a plurality of votes – albeit only in rather exceptional circumstances and for very brief periods – at the national level. Where they got in power within the context of robust democratic institutions (typically at the local or regional level), they were (and are) generally perfectly ordinary rulers, both in their positive and in their negative aspects.

However, the success of that specific political movement, as with many others, appears to be highly correlated with specific circumstances temporally (typically the rise and subsequent universalization of primary education) and, perhaps even more importantly, exhibits strikingly permanent geographic features (so that for instance Communism was always vanishingly small in France’s Maine while it was all-powerful in Puy-de-Dôme, a mere 300 miles away, or if you’d rather do international comparisons, compare Thailand and Viet Nam, or Poland, Finland, the Baltic States and Russia) which are more or less completely uncorrelated with the geographical distribution of the working class (so that Marx’s own analysis of Communism, as a historical political movement, seems quite completely wrong). The same is also largely true in non-democratic countries though of course judging the political will of the people is in this case by definition harder.

Putting everything together, it appears that Communism, as an actual political movement, likely has little or no direct relation with Marxist ideology and is much more easily understood as a reflection of the underlying social and cultural properties of the people inhabiting a certain region as expressed in specific historical circumstances of rising literacy. Evidently, one of these social and cultural property is a low priority given to individual liberty, or even a relatively less clear concept for that term, usually easily discernable both before and after the strictly defined Communist period.

If that is correct, and the evidence is in my opinion overwhelming, then Chait’s quotation you asked us to evaluate, namely “[t]he reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement”, rates in my view as “nicht einmal falsch”, in the helpful terminology often attributed to Pauli.

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LFC 03.26.18 at 6:12 pm

I don’t have floopmeister’s intimate, first-hand knowledge of Kerala, but the most important thing about the Kerala model (as outlined in the Wiki quote) IMO is the presence of high material quality-of-life indicators in a low per-capita income society.

What this means, in plain English, is that Kerala is a relatively poor place in terms of average income that has nonetheless managed to achieve high rates of food security, sanitation, public health and access to basic health care, access to clean water, literary, primary education, and the other indicators that comprise what used to be called meeting ‘basic needs’ (before that phrase fell out of fashion in development circles some decades ago).

Why this model has never been scaled up to the rest of India very effectively is a subject I leave, at least for the moment, to those more competent to pronounce on the matter, but offhand I’d say that the presence of strong Communist parties in Kerala is not coincidental — not because they are Communist but because they happen to be committed to implementing and sustaining the ‘Kerala model’. A whole variety of local conditions, which floopmeister wd know more about than I do, are prob. relevant as well.

In this context the ideology of the Kerala branches of the CPI and the CPI (Marxist), where ‘ideology’ here refers, among other things, to how many times their newspapers feel obliged to quote the ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ or the ’18th Brumaire’ or ‘State and Revolution’ or whatever, seems far less relevant than what I infer to be their practical policy commitments.

Indeed, a somewhat ironic footnote: Marx in ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ argued that redistribution in the absence of a basic change in the mode of production was illusory social-democratic (Lassallean) foolishness, i.e., in plain English he argued that meaningful social and economic change to benefit workers (etc.) required the abolition of capitalism rather than tinkering with its distributional outcomes. I don’t really know enough about Kerala’s economy, but my guess is that it’s basically a capitalist economy with good distributional and quality-of-life indicators — a ‘model’ to the success of which Communist parties have apparently contributed significantly. In doing so they have ignored, to put it no more strongly, some of Marx’s dicta in ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’.

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LFC 03.26.18 at 8:20 pm

P.s. Clarification: I misstated a bit the relevant argument in Critique of the Gotha Program. What Marx argued was that there *could not be* significant redistribution without a change in mode of production, so it was retrograde etc. to focus on distribution as opposed to changing the m.o.p. I don’t think this contention, insofar as it was meant partly as an empirical proposition, fit all that well w some facts at the time of writing, or later. (But in the interest of not re-trodding well-worn debate paths, I shd have prob. just ended the preceding comment before the last paragraph.)

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J-D 03.26.18 at 10:02 pm

LFC
In an episode of Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby suggests that almost anything can be attacked as a loss of amenity, and almost anything can be defended as not a significant loss of amenity. I suggest that in a similar way, almost any political program can be credited with being redistributive, and almost any political program can be criticised as not being significantly redistributive; or, almost any program of social or economic change can be defended as benefitting people, and almost any program of social or economic change can be attacked as not meaningfully benefitting people.

Watch out for the qualifiers!

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LFC 03.27.18 at 12:32 am

J-D @73

I think you have missed at least part of my point, but I’m not inclined to try to restate it. So I’ll just leave it at that.

But if it’s the word “meaningful” in the last paragraph that’s bothering you, please just mentally remove it: the point stands just as well without it.

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Dave Maier 03.27.18 at 6:46 pm

For his sins, as documented here, I sentence Jonathan Chait to be forever mixed up in my mind with Jonathan Haidt. (Now, whether the latter deserved this is another matter …)

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