Belief In Hell As The Basis For Faith

by John Holbo on January 26, 2019

Our Corey is in The New Yorker! I was going to boost it for him but he got to it first.

But I’ll do it anyway.

The political convert was the poster child of the Cold War. The leading ideologues of the struggle against Communism weren’t ancient mariners of the right or liberal mandarins of the center. They were fugitives from the left. Max Eastman, Arthur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, and Ignazio Silone—all these individuals, and others, too, had once been members or fellow-travellers of the Communist Party. Eventually, they changed course. More than gifted writers or tools of Western power, they understood what Edmund Burke understood when he launched his struggle against the French Revolution. “To destroy that enemy,” Burke wrote of the Jacobins, “the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.”

Corey’s puzzle, per the subtitle: “defectors from the left have often given the right a spark and depth. Why doesn’t it work the other way around?”

We’ll get to that. But first I would like to report a coincidence. I’ve just been brushing up on Max Eastman myself. (Here’s a good Dissent piece, in case you need a refresher or introduction.) That’s because I’ve been reading about a different forgotten figure — the great cartoonist Art Young! Young is the subject of a new Fantagraphics books that is absolutely tops, and if you are the sort of person who might be remotely interested in anything of the sort, you should get it. It is To Laugh That We May Not Weep: The Life and Art of Art Young [publisher]. The Kindle version is cheap on Amazon [amazon associates link]. I don’t know how long that happy condition will last. If you don’t wanna pay, this site is pretty ok, too. The thing is: the new book contains lots of high quality reproductions of the original art, rather than just scans of the poorly printed originally published versions. The original art, properly reproduced, just pops to an incredible degree. The crosshatching. I’m in awe. Tomorrow or the next day I’m going to try to work up an appreciation of Young’s art. He was a pen and ink master. Just look at this nice stuff!

But politics. First, politics.

Max Eastman and Art Young worked together on a radical socialist monthly, The Masses. Eastman was editor (while still working on his dissertation under John Dewey); Art Young was house cartoonist. The two of them ended up co-defendants in major trials, not once, not twice but two-and-a-half times. (The third was a re-trial.)

First, in 1913, they were sued for libel by the Associated Press for alleging – truthfully! – that the AP had effectively suppressed news of the Paint-Creek Cabin-Creek Strike. Young drew a cartoon. Wikimedia has it. Wikipedia:

The strike came to national attention in July 1913, cartoonist Art Young published a cartoon in The Masses called “Poisoned at the Source” depicting the president of The Associated Press, Frank B. Noyes, poisoning a well labeled ‘The News’ with lies, suppressed facts, slander, and prejudice. It was accompanied by an editorial by Max Eastman claiming that the AP had not only suppressed the facts of the strike, but that the AP had a profound conflict of interest. Despite the AP’s denials, its local AP representative, Cal Young, was also a member of the military tribunal passing judgment on the strikers. The AP responded with two suits of criminal libel against Eastman and Young on November 1913 and January 1914. Both suits eventually were dropped. The AP’s specific reasons for dropping the suits, and its general relationship to labor, are explored in Upton Sinclair’s 1919 exposé The Brass Check.

Then Eastman and Young both got prosecuted for violation of the Espionage Act in 1918. Basically, they were accused of interfering with recruitment. Again Wikimedia has the offending cartoon. Funnier is the account of the second trial for espionage (after the first ended in mistrial.) Wikipedia:

The second trial began in September 1918, and it was as full of humor and irreverence as the first, perhaps more humorous for the historian than for Young. Throughout the trial, Young had the tendency to nap, an act that brought him dangerously close to being charged with contempt of court. Afraid Young would get into more trouble than he already was, his attorneys insisted he be awakened and given a pencil and pad. Young took the pencil and pad and quickly completed a self-portrait. The drawing, “Art Young on Trial for His Life”, appeared in the Liberator in June 1918. The cartoon depicted Young slumped in a chair, dozing the trial away.

Young’s propensity for napping worked to the defendant’s advantage during the closing arguments. Prosecutor Barnes, wrapped in an American flag and giving a moving speech, told a story of a dead soldier in France. This soldier, Barnes claimed, “is but one of a thousand whose voices are not silent. He died for you and he died for me. He died for Max Eastman. He died for John Reed. He died for Merrill Rogers. He demands that these men be punished.” Roused from his slumber by the impassioned speech, Young exclaimed, “What! Didn’t he die for me too?” The beautiful oration successfully ruined, the second jury was unable to convict or acquit. Eight jurors voted for acquittal and four for conviction. It would be the last time Young appeared in court for the charges, as they were dropped after failing twice to garner any convictions.

Good story!

Back to Corey’s New Yorker piece. (But we’ll get back to Young before we’re done!) The occasion for Corey’s question about the asymmetry – why are left-right converts influential, right-left converts not so much – is a pair of recent right-to-left shifts: Derek Black and Max Boot. (CT readers know Boot, and Corey just posted about him. Black is the subject of a recent book by Eli Saslow. [amazon])

Let’s first ask: is he right? (We don’t want to haul off and try to explain a non-fact.) Former leftist radicals have not merely joined but, to a very considerable degree, defined the modern American right. Made the modern conservative movement. Yep. True and undeniable.

Has no former right-winger-turned-left defined the shape of liberalism, or the left, to a comparable degree? Corey lists candidates: “Arianna Huffington, Michael Lind, Bruce Bartlett, Glenn Loury, and, in Britain, John Gray.” I might add: Gary Wills, David Brock. As Corey says: clearly none of these is it. I’m a fan of Michael Lind. He’s great. Brock’s Media Matters has been a significant, steady force. But I couldn’t honestly say that any of them have significantly shaped what liberalism or the left is. There are no former right-wing, now-left-wing ‘thought leaders’. Not the way ex-leftists on the right have literally made the modern conservative movement.

Is there a reason? Corey’s answer is seemingly rather simple (and I’ll simplify it further by quoting a single line from the end.)

Revolutions don’t react to or borrow; for better or worse, they create an untried form. They have no need for defectors, no need to turn the other side. As Hannah Arendt taught us, they always begin something new.

I think this is not quite it. First, while this is no doubt the rhetoric of revolution, the reality is always a bit more mixed. Second, not all leftism is revolutionism. Let alone all liberalism. But there’s something to this simple answer, all the same.

Let’s start here. Corey’s piece makes me think that ‘reactionary’ is kinda ambiguous. Type-1: a fantatical, dogmatic, uncompromising, iron adherent to some (former) order. Joseph de Maistre, say. But there is a second sort – the recovering former communist, say. Type-2. Sometimes those turn out plain type-1. The fanaticism of the convert. I don’t suppose there is daylight between David Horowitz and Joseph de Maistre, temperamentally. But often the recovering leftist turns out weirdly broad-minded, or pseudo-broad-minded, in an interesting way. The type-2 reactionary can think outside the box … but only in another box. (This needs another post.) It’s more like extreme-minded than truly broad-minded. It’s funny the degree to which conservatism – allegedly a softer, moderate temperament – has been a movement built on the backs of type-2 reactionaries without a moderate bone in their bodies. Just an unusually wide spread of extreme bones.

What about this? Political conservatism is hell-based theology. There is a leftist Bad Place – way worse than most ordinary folk have ever witnessed – and the main thing we must do is keep out of it. So you need a steady stream of witnesses who have been there. (Even if it’s just Bill Buckley having been to Yale and having witnessed the fresh hell of God’s exclusion from those ivy-clad environs.) This first-hand testimony founds the political theology.

So the left isn’t distinguished from the right by some dream of an as-yet-unseen heaven. It’s distinguished by being not based on a nightmare of as-yet-unseen hell.

Now, as to the value of such visions? There was a time when the left, outside Russia, was wishfully deluded about conditions in Stalinist Russia. In those circumstances, apostate former worshippers of the God that Failed were powerful witnesses. But there is a stopped-clock weakness if that is all you’ve got. For the right, the problem with everything the left does is not that there is something obviously wrong with it. Yet, somehow, it’s necessarily the road to hell. So the conservative movement will be effectively lead by those who have, allegedly, walked that road back from hell. They have trod that sad path of good intentions gone bad.

Then again, demonization of the opposition isn’t a right-wing monopoly. Is the paranoid style so different, left-right-wise? Why shouldn’t the left be just as eager as the right to have converts from the other side testifying ‘it’s hell there!’

Back to Art Young. He started as a good, solidly midwestern Republican, drawing cartoons of a heroic Benjamin Harrison (of all things!) But he drifted left, then left some more. Corey quotes Daniel Bell (one of the more thoughtful left-right shifters): “Every radical generation has its Kronstadt.” Kronstadt: site of an egregious Stalinist atrocity – and hypocrisy. Slaughtered workers, then celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune over their dead bodies. Young had a couple of Kronstadts, even before he found himself on trial. He was a sketch artist, covering the Haymarket Riots. He lampooned a different Harrison – Carter Harrison, mayor of Chicago – for being soft on anarchist elements, too lenient concerning labor protests, and bending over backwards to appeal to all nationalities. From the book:

Young himself would later say of the trial and execution of four men arrested for the Haymarket bombing that “not until several years later did I discover that there was another side to the story” and of a cartoon he drew for an anti-Anarchist book, “if the dead can hear, I ask forgiveness now for that act. I was young and I had been misled by the clamor of many voices raised to justify a dark and shameful deed.”

One of Young’s more popular cartoon creations was the Poor Fish. Hooked by the saddest stuff, wisdom-wise.

Like Ben Stein, criticizing Ocasio-Cortez: “There’s nothing wrong in a society that allows billionaires to exist as long as the billionaires don’t lock you up in prison and put you in a firing squad.” That’s a perfect, modern Poor Fishism.

It’s good to be a recovered Poor Fish – smarter than being Ben Stein – but not exactly heroic. Getting back to Corey: the trouble with Boot’s conversion is that his time in the conservative trenches doesn’t seem to have given him special local knowledge or insight, beyond what is more or less apparent to outsiders. Max Boot is a smart guy who was seriously confused, and some Poor Fish scales have fallen from his eyes. That’s it.

Corey has this good catch. On the one hand, Boot wanted to be part of a ‘party of ideas’, not just buy into cracker-barrel philosophy. Once upon a time we had Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative! Now it’s just Trump! But Corey catches him admitting later that, when he finally got around to reading Goldwater’s book – after Trump got elected – it seems kinda nuts in parts. As the Poor Fish preaches: “Wars are necessary.” And: “My country, right or wrong.” Also: “the meek shall inherit the earth,” “Life is what you make it,” “We’ll always have rich and poor,” and “there’s always room at the top.”

It’s like someone sells a Poor Fish a box of wisdom and … out pops a Poor Fish, selling a smaller box of wisdom!

Liberalism – progressivism, the left – isn’t going to remake itself as the philosophy with the special power to see further than a Poor Fish. If Art Young had tried to make a cartoon career out of narrating and re-narrating his harrowing escape from the ideological clutches of Benjamin Harrison, via the Haymarket Riots, that would have been … not without local interest, but self-limiting, as ideological achievements go. (If you want to read his biography, it’s on

More needs to be said. It’s not that everything every recovering conservative has said about their leftward path is Poor Fish-bait. Why are, say, Michael Lind and Garry Wills smart apostates from the right but not therefore lefty leadership material? That’s an interesting question. But this post has gone on too long and I haven’t gotten to hell proper. Let’s briefly visit.

Art Young had a hell-and-back thing. Presumably it started with admiring Doré’s Dante illustrations as a lad. In 1893 he published Hell Up To Date, The Reckless Journey of R. Palasco Drant, Special Correspondent, Through the Infernal Regions, As Recorded By Himself ( has got that, too, and the graphics quality isn’t so bad). Then, in 1901 he followed up with Through Hell with Hiprah Hunt. (You can get a cheap Kindle version of that one. Or just try out Wikimedia.) Then, in 1934, Art Young’s Inferno: A Journey Through Hell Six Hundred Years After Dante. It isn’t really political. It’s one of those ‘annoying people get fitting punishments’ things, mostly. It gets somewhat more political as the author himself does. But, here again, the theme that capitalism is, secretly, Hell – or that some businessmen are bastards who deserve what’s coming to them – is not the stuff of which serious revelations are made. It’s unpretentious but graphically fun. It’s impossible to imagine Young offering up his vision of Hell, as a convert to the left, and speaking about it the way, say, Arthur Koestler spoke to the right. Corey quotes him: “all you comfortable, insular, Anglo-Saxon anti-Communists resent us as allies – but, when all is said, we ex-Communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about.”

You don’t know what the radical future requires unless you’ve once been too soft on Benjamin Harrison!

Eh. What else have you got?

That’s enough for Part 1. Part 2 will be my appreciation of Young’s style and artistic evolution, if I can work up to getting around to writing it.

Congrats again to Corey hitting the big time. The New Yorker, man.



clew 01.26.19 at 8:23 am

“You can cut a rooster to a capon but you can’t make a capon a rooster again.”

Your argument is better, but mine’s older!


bad Jim 01.26.19 at 8:40 am

So, an engineer finds herself in hell, and is not happy about it. Recognizing that vast expanses are extremely hot and others extremely cold, she takes measures to harness the energy flow this disparity makes available. Some time later, God checks in with Satan to assure himself that conditions in hell are gratifyingly punitive. Not so, says Satan; as it happens there’s air-conditioning, escalators between the different levels, every imaginable amenity. In fact, the afterlife has become damned comfortable.


Peter T 01.26.19 at 9:21 am

bad Jim

As I recall, it goes on that God is very upset, and demands things be returned to normal. The Devil refuses, God threatens to sue, and the Devil sneeringly asks where does God think he is going to find a lawyer?


Adam Roberts 01.26.19 at 10:30 am

This is all very interesting. Of course, it’s not only a twentieth-century phenomenon (you know that, I know, but I thought I’d say). For example, the six big British Romantic poets were all, as young men, political radicals, revolutionaries even; but of the six only one (Blake) stayed that way into old age. Three (Byron Shelley and Keats) didn’t live long enough to see old age, and given what happened to Wordsworth and Coleridge there’s a good chance they’d have followed a similar path, to conservatism, political reaction and hang-em-flog-em Toryism. Is there anything in that? I mean the ageing thing: if you’re not a socialist at 20 you have no heart and if you’re not a conservative at 60 you have no brain. I don’t think that’s true, by the way, but it’s a thing that is said, isn’t it; and I suppose there is some correlation between getting older and swinging rightward. Is that enough to explain the bias you’re talking about? Revisionaries are, by the bald logic of chronology, older than visionaries.

And actually, the part of all this that really interests me is the way Coleridge (so far as I can see genuinely) didn’t believe his political principles had changed at all. That’s part of it, isn’t it? Young Christopher Hitchens is a Communist and old Christopher Hitchens a supporter of the Republican party and cheerleader for the Iraq war, but Christopher Hitchens the writer insists that his principles haven’t shifted one little bit.


John McGowan 01.26.19 at 1:14 pm

Would be interested in hearing who CTers would nominate as thought leaders on the left? Rawls seems too academic to be of great use for public debates and rallying of the troops to the cause. FDR’s rhetorical genius seems closer to what is needed, but combined with some more intellectual heft. Plus he is a long time ago now. Candidates?


steven t johnson 01.26.19 at 1:28 pm

Yes, well, the right wingers insist their converts are deep and principled, but they would say their authorities are authoritative, wouldn’t they? And insofar as political conservatism actively endorses mystifications about history, society, the cosmos and morality, any concessions to reality by the convert would be the the motte in the motte and bailey. Also, since the political conservatives’ bailey includes irrationalism, the old habits of critique learned by most leftists who resisted the rote political conservatism they were raised on also provides useful public relations skills.

I suppose I’m saying that the issue of left to right conversions is a non-problem. I doubt very few if any were ever profound and creative thinkers. I think they tend to be very superficial, and trendy. But political conservatism is an old junker that can really use a paint of coat. Superficial thinkers with the latest colors are the best paint, so to speak.

One thing about conversion literature is how useful it is to exaggerate the wickedness of the old life. Or in politics to exaggerate how left wing one was. And another thing is how, if one is going to take up an acceptably conformist political stance, it is so much more comfortable to attribute it to moral revelation, rather than a calculation of interest. That’s why I should think one’s leftism should be assessed by looking for something given up for it.

Shelley got cut off, Byron joined the revolution, well these are easy. Blake took up prophecy so I’m rather inclined to say he went bad as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Unless one defines a disorderly sex life as leftist? Perhaps but this seems extreme. As to why they went right, both Blake and Coleridge had to my mind obvious emotional challenges driving much of their behavior.

As to counterfactuals about the political evolution of Shelley and Byron? I seem to remember reading somewhere that Marx and Engels had played the game and decided Shelley would stick to it, while Byron would break. Personally though I suspect the temptations of conforming to his inheritance and Mary would have driven him right. But Byron’s genuine difficulties in conforming to the era’s sexual mores would always have kept him from going all the way.


Mitchell J. Freedman 01.26.19 at 1:57 pm

I was glad to read the post and the Corey Robin piece as Robin knows very well the people of whom he speaks in the 20th Century intellectual pantheon. I was just a bit thrown off by his statement that the young man who went from son of and supporter of American nazism to liberal changed sides, but did not “change the sides.” I think the young man is correct that the race line is a fundamental line that runs through American history. Does Robin think that is wrong?


Bruce Bartlett 01.26.19 at 2:05 pm

I think you miss the importance of political apostates. What they bring to the table aren’t core ideas, but ideas about strategy and tactics. Ex-Communists like Whittaker Chambers and others taught 1950s/60s era conservatives how to sell their ideas, how to organize, how to fight back against the left, which was dominant in that era. Later, the early neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, who were all ex-leftists, helped teach conservatives how to be more academic, empirical and sophisticated in selling their ideas. The foundation that these apostates built for conservatism was essential for the great political success it has enjoyed for the last 25 years. I believe that much of the strategy and tactics the right used to win is just Politics and Public Relations 101 and could be copied by the left. Apostates from the right could help, but no one on the left is interested. Those on the left may not want to hear it, but their political incompetence is a big reason why we have Trump.


John Holbo 01.26.19 at 2:17 pm

Thanks for comments. A few quick, one-finger-typed responses. I think a better frame (now I think about it) would not be to suggest apostates from right to left are uninfluential or unimportant. Or lacking in ideas. Or lacking in bravery. I knock Boot as a Poor Fish – I honestly don’t see his apostasy has made for insights, except for him – but he’s lost a lot of friends. That takes something. The thing to emphasize is rather the unusual centrality of the left-right shifter to the conservative side. Bruce B emphasizes they were teachers of tactics. I guess I think it was a school of values. I need to think about it more. More responses to other comments later. Need sleep.


John Holbo 01.26.19 at 2:28 pm

But first I’ll say, hi Adam i’ll get back to your comment tomorrow, and it’s good to see John McGowan again. And I should have said in the post that Bruce Berlett is a very smart guy. Not sure why I only praised Lind’s brain, not Bartlett’s.


John Holbo 01.26.19 at 2:29 pm

Bartlett. Not a good angle for typing.


alfredlordbleep 01.26.19 at 2:36 pm

Making contact with the title of this thread. From the unreleased continuation of “Philosophy at Play” (Oct 2018, CT)

CECILY We are all creatures of the natural world. We breathe the same air. I’m glad of our common senses.
JH Thank reason for overcoming the limits of the senses. Invisible air yielded to palpable understanding.
CECILY Mind you, Dr Chasuble preaches that the Holy Ghost is invisible and all over.
JH Error is all around us. [Deadpans] Should a cathedral built on such a foundation be blest?
CECILY Seriously, does your professional scepticism soften in private to faith?
JH Serious people have always made themselves foolish by making a political convenience of their religious beliefs and commandments of their political values.
CECILY Is hell so little deterrence?
JH It’s true hell is no use when God is on our side. Otherwise look to the Greeks. For his triumph in battle the ancient gods once required the life of the king’s own daughter.
CECILY Glad I’m no princess. Nor even pretend to know one. . .

Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely artificial
Found on a typewriter in the storeroom—in the spirit of a trivial comedy for serious people


steven t johnson 01.26.19 at 3:26 pm

Forgot to answer, sorry. “Then again, demonization of the opposition isn’t a right-wing monopoly. Is the paranoid style so different, left-right-wise? Why shouldn’t the left be just as eager as the right to have converts from the other side testifying ‘it’s hell there!’”

Attribution of Bad Things to the system instead of Bad People is so far as I know rather more specific to the left, albeit the Marxist-influenced left universally agreed to be demonic since the glorious social redemption of McCarthyism. Also, the paranoid style isn’t really a thing so it is impossible to anatomize. And the right is very much like heterosexuality: No gay needs to have it explained to them.

And since I’m waiting for lunch….” Corey quotes Daniel Bell (one of the more thoughtful left-right shifters): ‘Every radical generation has its Kronstadt.’ Kronstadt: site of an egregious Stalinist atrocity – and hypocrisy. Slaughtered workers, then celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune over their dead bodies.”

I’m not so sure Bell can be deemed thoughtful. After all, the Civil War generation had multiple Kronstadts, when the illegal and tyrannical northern government repeatedly offended against democracy in an incredible display of hypocrisy. The army of occupation inflicted on the South during Reconstruction was an egregious atrocity, the repression of a people in flagrant contradiction to the professed principles that made this great country. Thank God the Compromise of 1876 opened the way to Redemption of democracy. Just as the Bolsheviks were wrong to suppress a revolt that wanted to overthrow the new order, so too were the damn Yankees.

Irony aside, all the Kronstadts are myths of counterrevolution, monstrous torments by demons. The multiple atrocities of the rulers are generally ignored, since they are just business as usual. But when they can’t be ignored, then they came from nowhere, just like acts of the God of the insurance companies. Kronstadts are what-aboutism. Like virtue-signalling it is essential to the right, covert or over.


oldster 01.26.19 at 3:26 pm

“Former leftist radicals have not merely joined but, to a very considerable degree, defined the modern American right. Made the modern conservative movement. Yep. True and undeniable.”

I’m not in a position to deny it, but may I at least question it?

It would be more accurate, I think, to say something like this:

“Former leftist radicals have defined and made [ the public face of] [the literate wing of] the modern conservative movement.”

Your Irving Kristols certainly did a lot of the writing and pamphleteering and sloganeering of the modern conservative movement. No denying that.

But what about the infrastructure behind them? The money men who made it work, and reaped the profits? The Koch brothers and their earlier avatars in the John Birch society were *not* the public face of the modern conservative movement, because they wanted to stay out of the public.

But did not people like these — whether hard-right plutocrats, or ultra-montanist admirers of Franco, or ordinary Rotary Club racists — do as much to “define the modern American right” and “make the modern conservative movement” as the pamphleteers did?

And few converted leftists among them.


Scott Ashworth 01.26.19 at 3:27 pm

Art Young! Really looking forward to part 2–Don’t get distracted!


Anarcissie 01.26.19 at 3:49 pm

You seem to be talking about leaders. While some become leaders out of necessity, many want to be leaders. Leaders are people who tell other people what to think and what to do — in other words, they exert authority. But authority is the business of the Right, so that once-leftist leaders often find that their inner rightist eventually reveals itself and takes over. That often seems to occur when the leader succeeds in some way and the authority or at least repute he has sought becomes explicit — the inner becomes the outer. A person who seriously moved the other way, deliberately abandoning leadership and fame, would tend to disappear into the crowd. (Thinking of Bob Parris Moses)


KLG 01.26.19 at 3:52 pm

I became a socialist at 8 or 9 when Walter Cronkite reported one night that after a large layoff at an automaker or similar multinational, the company’s stock price jumped. The people who lost their jobs were union hourly workers, just like my father. That scared me then, and it still does. 55+ years on, I am further to the Left than I have ever been and still moving in that direction. I remain somewhat ahead of my grown children, to their sometime consternation, but they are still mastering their understanding of neoliberalism. YMMV.

Anyway, based on the very sad news I learned from Harry this week, I have taken “Classes” and “Envisioning Real Utopias” down off the shelf and am reinforcing myself for the long haul, however long that lasts for me. I’ve been to Madison (School of Medicine) only once and , but EOW was my teacher, too.


bianca steele 01.26.19 at 5:25 pm

To me the post Cold War conversions seem different because of the apocalyptic nature of 20th century politics. What one magic trick caused Hitler? Which one caused the gulag? Surely there’s some cultural development that, if we went back in time and gave it worse reviews, could have stopped the whole thing at the source! Coleridge wanted a better world according to his beliefs, and changed his mind about whether to look forward or backward to find it. Irving Kristol thought the Right was the Devil and then changed his mind and decided the Left was; so did Hitchens, Chambers, . . .

I thought I had a few NYer articles left but apparently I’ll have to wait til next month to read Corey’s piece. Used the last one on the Anderson profile most likely.


LFC 01.26.19 at 6:46 pm

Re John McGowan: the term “thought leaders” is sufficiently mushy that lots of leftish thought leaders can be nominated. The trouble w any listing is that some obvious names will likely be omitted.


Stephen 01.26.19 at 7:30 pm

If you are looking at defectors from right-wing hell to the left, to compare to those defecting from left-wing hell (and would anyone dispute that Stalinist Russia was genuinely that?) to the right, should you not look for defectors from genuine right-wing hells to the left?

Surely, right wing politics in the USA have never created any remotely comparable hells. Which may explain something.

The closest non-US parallels I can think of are: Curzio Malaparte, Fascist, disagreed with and imprisoned by Mussolini (but survived, not really comparable hell), post-War member of the Italian Communist Party.

Francois Mitterand, Catholic nationalist in youth, worked as civil servant for Petain’s Vichy state (but again, not really comparable hell unless you had the misfortune to be a Jew), awarded Order de la Francisque as a special mark of estimation by Petain, had ambiguous relations with Resistance, declared himself pro-Resistance and fled to London in November 1943; postwar became a Socialist leader and eventually Socialist President of France. Notwithstanding his continued friendship with, and financing by, Rene Bousquet, general secretary of the Vichy police who among other things organised the deportation of Jewish children from occupied France.

Not clear, come to think of it, how far he can really be seen as moving from right to left. Complicated business, politics, especially in France.


Aloevera 01.26.19 at 7:46 pm

The question posed here about asymmetry in the movement between Left and Right is an interesting one, and the case made by Corey Robin strikes me as accurate. There are probably multiple causes for that asymmetry. Regarding the future: if one looks at the situation in contemporary America–especially from the perspective of affiliation and behavior among adherents of political parties–one factor (which I don’t think would explain the whole phenomenon of asymmetry) emerges into view with relevance for asymmetry, if not in the past then for the future. In the movement between Heavens and Hells there is a Purgatory: namely the “Independent” status. A number of high-profile recent defectors from the Republican Party–even where they might currently advise voting for the Democrats (as a kind of last resort to either “save” the Republican Party and the country, or to circumvent what they view as the befouled Republican Party)–have explicitly turned to an Independent status (see: — or — ). They have registered as Independents. They explicitly do not want to join the Democratic Party. From such an Independent perch, they are hardly likely to influence the internal doings and movements of the Democratic Party, which, including all its current factions, is largely the home arena of Leftism in America. More: the Independent status among the US electorate seems to be the largest perch and possibly growing, of late (see: — or — )–all of which suggests that movement back and forth between Heavens and Hells in the American future may be quite complicated, and that the label of “asymmetry” may not quite capture the developing situation.


Antonin 01.26.19 at 8:33 pm

The vulgar reductive materialist version goes something like, the right is no-expanses-spared, mass-mediated propaganda for the regime, the left is not.


ccc 01.26.19 at 10:26 pm

How about this more basic explanation: material gains.

L-to-R conversion tends to be more economically beneficial than R-to-L conversion. Because the right has more economic power it can spend more on people who will say and do things that benefits the right’s economic interests. As a result there are more L-to-R conversions. A larger quantity of L-to-R conversions increases the likelihood that at least some of those converts will be influential on the right. Not due to any other special assymmetry in the right/left (pace Holbo’s theology idea or Robin’s revolution idea). No, simply because there are more such converts.

To start to test this candidate explanation we could

– assemble data on the economic trajectories of R-to-L and L-to-R converts. Correlating assymmetry?

– For the left and right calculate the *ratio* of (influential converts) and (quantity of converts). Assymmetry?

The material gains explanation can be specified in a few different ways and vary in how aware the converts are assumed to be about the driving factor. Spectrum endpoints:
1. converts themselves intentionally calculate and plan their change of position, and how they express it in words/action, with the aim to increase their expected economic gains.
2. converts are completely unaware that material incentives really drives their change and instead come up with this or that causally inert rationalization.


RobinM 01.26.19 at 10:37 pm

Adam Roberts’–@ no. 4–mention of British figures moving from radicalism to reaction brought to my mind the shift in the other direction of William Cobbett. Maybe it could be said of this ardent Tory publicist who became even more ardent in support of working people, that he’s an example of someone who contributed greatly to the making of the English working class.


John Holbo 01.26.19 at 11:18 pm

I really like alfredlordbleep’s play, but I feel I would like it even more if I understood it better, even if it turned out he was making fun of me more than I think.


John Holbo 01.26.19 at 11:30 pm

“L-to-R conversion tends to be more economically beneficial than R-to-L conversion. ”

Definitely so. And the point about how L-to-R converts have always found deep-pocketed backers is true. But why should the convert – rather than the stalwart or old-hand – seem so attractive to those with deep-pockets, looking for a likely investment? Why should it be less winning going the other way? As to ‘thought-leaders’, I deliberately chose that mushy term to suggest that the sort of leader you might produce this way is not always to be wished for.

A strayed member of the other flock is always welcome to a degree. Lots of lefties have been enjoying ‘woke’ Bill Kristol – not that he’s gone full lefty. But there’s shadenfreude value in the spectacle. But suppose David Frum went full lefty. He really changed his stripes totally. Well, he would be welcomed insofar as he would continue to write for the Atlantic, now more leftily. But he wouldn’t redefine the left. He wouldn’t seem like a unique visionary. He wouldn’t bring ‘new values’.

John McGowan asks who the leaders on the left are – or have been. Yeah, good question. Unlike the right, it’s relatively more fragmented, and that might mean that you can’t name just one or two names – and that might affect the validity of the present experiment. Bruce Bartlett and Michael Lind and etc. are doing ok, but just by writing moderately influential stuff, like a lot of writers on the left. If that is literally the best anyone is doing on the left, celebrity-wise, then maybe the left just lacks a coherent ‘movement’ quality. I should read that Oppenheim book Corey mentions in the piece.


Sebastian H 01.27.19 at 12:23 am

“They were fugitives from the left. Max Eastman, Arthur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, and Ignazio Silone…”

These were “the leading ideologues” of the Right? Really? I would tend to think if you were to make a list of the leading ideologues of the right you’d hit a lot of people before you’d get to them. In fact I hadn’t even heard of two and I was on the right for my first 40 years. You’re trying to explain a non thing. If you had shown that Buckley, and Kissinger, and Hayek and Thatcher followed that track you would have been on to something. Did Hayek? Hmmmm.


ccc 01.27.19 at 12:40 am

@John Holbo #26: “… the point about how L-to-R converts have always found deep-pocketed backers is true. But why should the convert – rather than the stalwart or old-hand – seem so attractive to those with deep-pockets, looking for a likely investment? Why should it be less winning going the other way?”

But do we really have evidence for the claim that L-to-R converts (on average) are more attractive to (and get more funds from) rightwing economic power than rightwing stalwarts?


KC 01.27.19 at 12:49 am

A possible example might be Warren a Buffet, who came from a Republican family, although I am not sure if he was ever one. Mr Buffett might not be a typical public intellectual, but his influence is subtle and (I hope) long- lasting.


alfredlordbleep 01.27.19 at 2:33 am

John, apologies to you and your family for uncomfortable musings.
Your namesake stars. Anyway, that’s something for a philosopher.
Also notice that a comedy will have absurd touches playing off The Importance of Being Earnest.
Of course, I have been sensitive to putting inelegant (or worse—wrong-headed) speeches in a namesake’s mouth. The last thing I would want if positions were reversed!
Again, any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely artificial.
May I ask for your forgiveness? (Earnestness at this moment is testing)


John Holbo 01.27.19 at 2:35 am

I got a whiff of Oscar Wilde off it, indeed. But still felt I could not penetrate to the crux of the matter. For which I hold myself semi-blameful.


alfredlordbleep 01.27.19 at 2:44 am

In part I was playing with your Oct 20 ’18 thread:

I think someone should write Philosophy For Work and Play.
“Error is real.” We could keep the picture the same.


John Holbo 01.27.19 at 2:55 am



faustusnotes 01.27.19 at 3:18 am

I agree with Sebastian H, the cited people are not serious right wing “thinkers” or politicians. Also they come from a very specific kind of leftism (revolutionary socialism) so the equivalent on the right you should be comparing them to is converted nazis. Of more relevance to most of the world (I hate to have to constantly remind you of this but America isn’t much of the world) are reformed union leaders, democratic socialists, and environmentalists. And there are very few of those.

Just for example, the union movement doesn’t look well on its members jumping ship for corporate gains, and they tend not to do so. The various labour parties of the developed world tend to destroy anyone who turns against them – see e.g. Mark Latham in Australia or Kevin Rudd, who have no intellectual or political influence.

The best and most pernicious example of someone who turned from left to right and influenced politics in a genuinely serious way is Tony Blair. He was a catastrophe for the British left. But people like him are rare, because union and labour discipline stops them rising to the top. And Tony Blair shows that the real history of people from the left turning to the right is of betrayal, not public jumping sides (see also Orwell working with the security services against his former comrades).

I think the quest you’re on here, to find people from the right equivalent to Koestler, is impossible, because Koestler is not representative of much of the left, and the majority of leftist history is not the history of the Soviet Union and its repressions.


John Holbo 01.27.19 at 3:51 am

“Max Eastman, Arthur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, James Burnham”

Eastman, Koestler and Chambers were all big names at the time. Hook is more academic. Burnham is also very important.


Phil 01.27.19 at 2:57 pm

Revolutions don’t react to or borrow; for better or worse, they create an untried form. They have no need for defectors

That’s a very odd statement – taken literally it would imply that Danton, Lenin and Subcomandante Marcos had each got up in the market square one day and said, “My friends, what we need now is YABLONGUS!”, and then gone about winnin hearts and minds to this strange new idea. (ObSF: “Rump-titty-titty-tum-tah-tee”) Revolutions do react, and they do borrow (if only to transform): you have to have a shared idea of what an ‘estate’ is and what’s generally due to one, before you can ask Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?

Similarly, the idea that revolutions don’t need defectors is odd. Never mind Kamenev and Zinoviev, where would that leave Engels? One surely can’t be an actual real-life capitalist – a member of the ruling class, in an age whose ideas are the ideas of the ruling class – without having one’s world-view shaped by capitalist ideology.

I suppose the difference Corey’s pointing to is that reactionary movements borrow ideas and personnel from revolutionary movements, but the latter don’t return the favour – they go to the source and borrow from the ruling class and its ideology. (This would also imply that reactionary ideology is derivative twice over, like taking a détourned comic and replacing the radical slogans with affirmations of capitalism and the American Way.) Intuitively this difference does seem important, but I’m not sure why.


Sebastian H 01.27.19 at 4:48 pm

My claim is a bit more limited than faustusnotes. I’m not suggesting that they weren’t thinkers. I’m not suggesting that they are entirely nothingburgers. I’m suggesting that you have to inflate their importance to get to the thesis. They aren’t like five of the top ten of their time, or some other striking number. If you make a top 30 list probably 2-3 of them make it, but certainly not all of them. You’d probably get to all of them in a top 100 list, but then 5% seems not worth creating involved narratives over. They are none of the top bunch of people you’d think of if asked to name 5 top conservative thinker/influencers of the last 100 years (or I think any subset of that, but I could be wrong there) and I think you’d have to be pushy to get even one in the top ten (it would be Whittaker Chambers I guess but I don’t think so).

A big part of the problem in the world is that Rush Limbaugh is probably in the top ten. Sigh.

Converts make a splash in the recent dynamic because communism had a couple decade fad going in intellectual circles, so when the wheels came off in a tough to deny murderous way there were a bunch of disillusioned types running around. Many of them tried to pretend that they didn’t buy into it in the first place. Others tried to give penance by overworking the other way.

If the question were “why did a notable number of leftists end up making showy conversions?” the answer is more obvious. The last 100 years have had high profile disasters clearly pinnable on leftism so the disillusioned were leftists. Despite the academic damnation of “imperialism”, conservatism has those disasters either in the very distant past (monarchism) or finally right this very second (Trumpism et al. which interestingly forms a reaction to other types of conservatism which fucked up the response to the global meltdown) or in ways that weren’t as cleary pinned on them. So the showy conversions are just starting now and we won’t know if they get to “as important as second and third rate influencers” until a few decades from now.


DocAmazing 01.27.19 at 5:40 pm

Re: Sebastian H’s notion that conservatism’s disasters were antique or too recent to note: You might want to note that no less a right-wing drooler than Kevin Williamson disapprovingly cited Pinochet recently, and the recent nomination of Elliot Abrams to further muck up the situation in Venezuela reminded everyone of the right-wing holocaust of Central America in the mid-to-late 20th century. (That’s not even to mention the rise of neo-Nazis, merrily reminding everyone of what the Right looks like when it really gets up to speed.) The ability of the corporate media to elevate mediocrities whose main job is to obfuscate and conceal such inconvenient history (e.g., Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks) and others whose function is to amplify the Red Horror (e.g., Anne Applebaum, Bret Stephens) remains the chief reason that left-to-right converts get the traction that they do.


Birdie 01.27.19 at 7:14 pm

Same with leftist religion, eg Mark Knoll, Christian Smith, etc “accepting” Romanism. I suppose your remarks generally apply there also, although in this case Hell locates on the conservative side and the Bad Thing is universalism. It’s the desire for a fundamentalism with more fundaments, I suppose. Less thought, more study. Against enthusiasm!!


Stephen 01.27.19 at 7:23 pm

Looking for a few more right-to-left conversions: try Lieut-General Vincenz Mueller, commander of 12 Corps, Army Group Centre, who after his capture in 1944 repositioned himself as a Communist and became Vice-President of the East German Parliament. Or Lieut-General Rudolf Barnier, likewise captured, and later serving as Major-General in the East German security forces.

Minor players with no influence in the USA, obviously. So try Paul de Man, assiduous pro-German antisemitic propagandist in Nazi-occupied Belgium, later established as very eminent vaguely-leftwing or at least deeply anti conservative literary theorist in US.


steven t johnson 01.27.19 at 8:03 pm

Well, again, since everyone starts from the right, all lefts are right-to-left conversions. Including as Phil noted above Engels. The psychology in conversion from “left-to-right” is generally a return to orthodoxy.

Also, probably the most influential right to left and back to right again conversion is George Orwell. It occurs to me that one example alone suggest the hellfire and damnation church of the right posited by the OP is correct.


Donald 01.27.19 at 8:46 pm

“Congrats again to Corey hitting the big time. The New Yorker, man.”

I’d congratulate the New Yorker. They have had their moments of greatness, but also their low points— Jeffrey Goldberg back in the early Bush era was probably the lowest. I stopped subscribing a few months ago, as there was rarely much worth paying for in their pages these days.

I am talking about the political articles. The literary bits might be great for all I know. Kolbert is good when she appears.


Donald 01.27.19 at 8:59 pm

“Despite the academic damnation of “imperialism”, conservatism has those disasters either in the very distant past (monarchism) or finally right this very second (Trumpism et al. which interestingly forms a reaction to other types of conservatism which fucked up the response to the global meltdown)”

Doc Amazing beat me to it, but tens of millions dead from famine in India, ten million dead in the Congo Free State, and hard-to- count millions of dead in various imperial wars from the 19th to 21st century probably deserve a bit more respect than Sebastian gives them here.


TM 01.27.19 at 9:37 pm

A huge difference between 20th century right-wing disasters and left-wing disasters (aka as Stalinism) is that right-wing disasters were disasters mostly for the other people, those the right wing leaders defined as the enemy, while those who supported the right-wing leaders were safe; whereas nobody – least of all authentic Communists – was safe from Stalin. This to me seems a real asymmetry.

Also agree with SH, it is complete nonsense to claim that people like Arthur Koestler ever “defined the right”. More to the point would be Mussolini, who did start out as a socialist.


Sebastian H 01.28.19 at 3:24 am

DocAmazing, the fact that we have to reach for Pinochet to get to an example shows exactly what I’m saying. I certainly wouldn’t want to have been living in Pinochet’s Chile, but on the left we have Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao for starters. Any one of them dwarfs Pinochet in terms of terror, body count, and international impact. And even in country comparisons end up like that–Batista was obviously vile, but Castro took things to an entirely different level of destructiveness.

Donald, “Doc Amazing beat me to it, but tens of millions dead from famine in India, ten million dead in the Congo Free State, and hard-to- count millions of dead in various imperial wars from the 19th to 21st century probably deserve a bit more respect than Sebastian gives them here.”

You’re turning a discussion about a limited topic into something else. I’m not an imperialism defender. I’m pointing out that the scale of left/right catastrophe divide is pretty big. Further the left catastrophes happen to their own citizens, while the evils of imperialism tend to be visited on people far away–thus tending to effect internal politics much less. We can have a totally different discussion about whether or NOT academic discussions of imperialism SHOULD effect in-country politics more, but I don’t think you can easily argue that IT DID IN FACT impact internal politics as much as evidence that left-side disasters tended to chew up the citizens of their own countries.

On a slightly different tact, I feel like the whole “right left” axis way of looking at things obscures so much even without getting into the whole libertarian argument. Swedish social democrats really aren’t almost communists just because we call them both ‘left’, and Reagan really wasn’t a kinda close to being a Nazi just because we call him ‘right’ (though Trump is if he were more organized). The insistence of thinking that way just makes a mess of things.


Donald 01.28.19 at 4:39 am

“I’m pointing out that the scale of left/right catastrophe divide is pretty big. ”

No, they’re not. When European imperialism was at its peak the death toll was comparable to the death tolls of communism and possibly larger. I doubt your Batista vs Castro comparison holds up. If you went around adding up the death tolls from various hit wars during the Cold War you would get well into the millions.

Offhand I think the point about fanatical communist regimes chewing up their own vs. rightwing regime’s slaughtering the Other is probably right.

This was probably a distraction from your main points, but I didn’t want to let it go unchallenged. I partly agree with your last paragraph. Swedish Social Democrats and totalitarian communist regimes have little in common. I am not quite so sure about the difference between Reagan and Trump, though yes, Reagan was able to work within the system better than Trump. ( Which isn’t saying much.). The families of hundreds of thousands of people murdered by Reagan’s beloved anti communists in Central America and Angola might not see a huge difference. Even with Yemen, Trump’s body count isn’t as high yet.


faustusnotes 01.28.19 at 6:05 am

The death toll of right wing politics since just 1950 has to include at least:

1 million by Sueharto
0.5 million – 1.5 million in the Vietnam war
7000 in the Malay emergency
3000 in Chile + the disappeared
100 – 200,000 dead in Guatemala
and all the other slaughters in south and central America

If you want to throw Stalin’s activities from 1927 – 1938 onto the ledger, then you also need to include the million who died in partition, the million starved in India in ww2, the millions killed by Hitler, the Korean war, the Spanish civil war, everything Japanese fascism did in the entire Pacific, and all the horrors of the last 30 years of the colonial era, plus apartheid, firmly in the ledger for the right.

This is obviously a boring and stupid conversation. It’s the kind of conversation 17 year old boys have at parties, who was worse Stalin or Hitler.

It’s also not right to say that right wing people kill “the other” while left wing people kill their own. The German Jews were German. All the Jews deported from Hungary to the death camps were Hungarian, etc. That argument only works if you want to implicitly assume that Jews and non-white people are not part of the country that they have citizenship in.

Before we can properly have the conversation that Robin and Holbo want to have though we need to talk abotu what kind of left and right we’re defining. If we decide to drop the communists and nazis from the equation, and instead focus on the broad swathe of left-wing and right-wing politics in peacetime in the latter half of the 20th century, we get a completely different discussion. Given that communism and nazism have (had, in the latter case) been dead for 50 years, it’s probably a good idea to try and think more broadly about what the movements we’re talking about really are, and what people were converting from and to.


marcel proust 01.28.19 at 5:24 pm

Kronstadt: site of an egregious Stalinist atrocity

“… That Word [Stalinist]; I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means,” especially since at the time of Kronstadt, not only was Lenin still in (reasonably) fine fettle, but Trotsky was the Commissar of War (i.e., head of the Red Army) and gave the order to suppress the rebellion. I believe that accusing Trotsky of Stalinism is an unusual, indeed an unorthodox, move.


bianca steele 01.28.19 at 8:19 pm

Possibly for a long time people like Burnham, Koestler, and Silone were really seen as the important thinkers on the conservative side, with Buckley as a publicist and Kirk almost unknown to liberals who wanted to engage/argue with their opponents.


Donald 01.28.19 at 10:39 pm


Whether it is interesting or not, one frequently sees people on the right ( or at one time from the right) claiming that communism killed far more people than the extreme right. The claim raises all sorts of issues and I didn’t want to get into all of them, but I didn’t want to let it pass.

“It’s also not right to say that right wing people kill “the other” while left wing people kill their own. ”

Yeah, I thought about that and probably should have just let it pass.


Donald 01.28.19 at 10:44 pm

I meant to add that this particular article about who was worse, Hitler or Stalin, I found interesting. Whether that makes me 17 years old in mentality I couldn’t say, but fellow adolescents who haven’t seen it might find it worth reading.


faustusnotes 01.29.19 at 1:22 am

Donald I also find the debate seductive, but it’s a waste of time for lots of reasons. You’ll note that Sebastian has been hazy about his timeline, so that he can balance all the post-war atrocities of the right against the pre-war atrocities of Stalin, ensuring he wins; marcel proust points out that stalin is held responsible for things he’s not; often people include in stalin’s death toll a bunch of people who died because of his mistakes in the war, not because of any particular leftist failing of his; people like to contrast Castro with Batista because that enables them to ignore the previous 40 years of misrule against which the Cubans were actually rebelling; and in any case if they lose the argument the right will simply assert that “nazism was just socialism anyway (it’s in the name!)” so it’s a waste of time. Mud-wrestling a pig, etc.


Sebastian H 01.29.19 at 6:31 am

“If you went around adding up the death tolls from various hit wars during the Cold War you would get well into the millions.”

I assume you mean hot wars during the Cold War, but it mystifies me why you think “the right” has to be blamed for them. Most of the them were proxy wars between the right and the left as instantiated through the US and the USSR (or sometimes Russia). In those cases the blame will often have to be shared with both sides, so relating it back to the topic at hand rather than some general comparison of left/right body counts, those aren’t as likely to provoke eye popping turnabouts because everyone looks bad in them. And contra Faustusnotes, I explicitly note that the worst of the rightist disasters (the ones pinnable directly on them rather than on the communist/anti-communist struggle) are further in the past than most of the communist disasters. And even the pre-war Communist disasters were not as generally acknowledged by the left to actually be disasters until AFTER WWII (we didn’t stop getting serious deniers until even people like Chomsky eventually stopped defending the Khmer Rouge).

So again, in the context of this discussion, the time frame where much of the left was finally willing to acknowledge the Communist disasters is more relevant than the exact time the disasters took place. And the time when a large portion of the left was willing to acknowledge that the Communist disasters might be an inherent and very high risk in the way Communism played out was even later than that. Remember that for much of the early history of Communism it was promoted as something with better outcomes than capitalism, so even admitting that it was just as bad probably felt like a major defeat.


Z 01.29.19 at 9:50 am

On the general theme of defection Left to Right versus the symmetric move, it seems to me that Corey’s frame of analysis is quite adequate. Reactionary politics has been, well, a reaction to the rise in political and economic agency on the part of the dominated segments of society as they achieved universal primary then secondary education. Being on the “left” in the 1600-1970 period this happened just meant favoring the direction of this movement, being on the “right” meant trying to reverse the natural consequences of that movement. A defection from “left” to “right” therefore meant a reworking and reversing of the obvious conclusions that had been previously learned, necessarily an interesting or at least creative intellectual endeavor. A defection from “right” to “left” simply meant coming to terms with the general move of the society and acknowledging the obvious (think what it meant to have been born in a right-wing, Tory family in 1900 England and coming to reflect on one’s own life and society at age 65).

Interestingly, for exactly the same dynamical reason, in our age of entrenched educative inequalities, we might yet see interesting, creative defections from “right” to “left”, if the former is understood (as I think it should be) as the political movement that endorses and accompanies these entrenched inequalities (note that under this bipartition, Trump and Macron fall broadly on the same side, as their actual policies go) and the latter is the movement that tries to reverse or mitigate them.

Sebastian H The last 100 years have had high profile disasters clearly pinnable on leftism so the disillusioned were leftists.


I wonder how you can write this with a straight face Sebastian. What do you think happened 100 years ago, as a direct consequence of the policies of right-wing reactionary governments? And then again 80 years ago, for the same reason? And then again 70 and 60 years ago in dominions, again for the exact same reason (and before you play the “this was done to other people” card, let me point out that the whole point was that these “other people” were then considered “our” people, and that even with the most restrictive definition imaginable – so even with a full subscription to the worse racist ideology imaginable – millions of people still suffered directly)? And don’t you think that that left a good deal of people disillusioned? And that these (shall I say high profile) disasters might have played a certain role in the conversion of many people towards what was a fringe radical leftist movement in the beginning of the 20th century?


Z 01.29.19 at 10:19 am

Also: we didn’t stop getting serious deniers until even people like Chomsky Kissinger and Brzezinski eventually stopped defending the Khmer Rouge.

There, fixed.


Donald 01.29.19 at 4:32 pm

“I assume you mean hot wars during the Cold War, but it mystifies me why you think “the right” has to be blamed for them”

Because in some cases the right was doing most of the killing–in Latin America for instance. And because many of the wars wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t jumped in. People would have been better off making their own sometimes catastrophic mistakes without us leaping in to “help”. I doubt helping was really very high on the agenda in most cases anyway.

On imperialism in general, within the US (and possibly elsewhere in the West) there is still a tendency to greatly downplay its cost. So I am happy to concede the cost of communism (with some caveats–see the link I posted above), but I don’t think most Americans or Westerners still fully grasp how much harm we have inflicted or are inflicting now.

My current favorite foreign policy writer at the moment is Daniel Larison, a conservative writer at the American Conservative, precisely because he is a principled opponent of our own interventionist crimes without falling into the trap of romanticizing whoever it happens to be that we are intervening against. Chomsky without the baggage, so to speak.

In your earlier posts you made some points that I partly agreed with, but you had to throw in that extra bit implicitly downplaying the crimes of “imperialism”. Sigh. Maybe I should have just ignored it, as Faustusnotes suggests. Anyway, I don’t want to continue this, so if you want the last word you can have it as far as I am concerned.


Sebastian H 01.29.19 at 5:33 pm

Z normally I get a lot out of talking with you, but trying to pin the Khmer Rouge on the right is an odd move. It was a communist organization.

We are talking about the politics of disillusionment. Communism enjoyed an intellectual fad that lasted many decades. This fad lasted under the idea that communism offered a huge step forward in justice from capitalism. As stories came out re Lenin and then Stalin and then Mao and then Pol Pot it became clear that at the very least communism was not providing better justice for its people than capitalism, and in many cases it appeared to be creating much worse. This reversal of expectations, created disillusionment. You want to focus on whether or not communism was creating worse outcomes than capitalism. I think it was, but in the context of this discussion nothing important hangs on that point. The point is that it definitely didn’t produce the immensely better outcomes that it advertised. The argument “we should have a revolution, destroy the old order, and upend everyone’s lives for decades to get to something that is definitely no better than if we just stuck with capitalism and arguably worse along the way” just doesn’t stick as well. When that truth came home there was disillusionment. Some people reacted by having the kind of huge realignment that we talk about in the main post. Others decided that maybe we needed to do things that weren’t revolutions (third way etc). Communism overpromised, and didn’t deliver at all. Arguably, the reason we are finally seeing serious pushback against the global capitalist order is because it is becoming clear that it isn’t living up to its promises for the mid tier worker (GDP is up, but it never ever gets shared)


Orange Watch 01.30.19 at 1:18 am

So again, in the context of this discussion, the time frame where much of the left was finally willing to acknowledge the Communist disasters is more relevant than the exact time the disasters took place.

So what does that say about, forex, the general ignorance of the existence of a British-manufactured famine during the period you’re calling exceedingly pertinent, let alone willingness to acknowledge that a right-wing gov’t were responsible for them? That’s exactly what you do by making a distinction between imperialism carried out by right-wing gov’ts, and “real” right-wing actions, I might add. I agree that this sort of argument is adolescent at best, but since it’s typically (and frequently) held up as a some sort of unbeatable right-wing trump card by adults who should know better, I’m a bit reluctant to let a characterization like this to pass without challenge.

(Although TBH Z, Donald, and FN have already said most of what needs said WRT the seriousness of this sort of argumentation rhetorical posturing.)


steven t johnson 01.30.19 at 2:42 am

There was also a “man-made famine” in Henan in 1942. (See the movie Back to 1942 for a dramatization.) Since all famines are man-made in the sense that they all occur when the rulers do not choose heroic efforts to feed the population, it is not clear how the Irish famine doesn’t count. I firmly believe that is the standard we should judge the theory that Stalin had deliberately targeted the Ukrainian people. The Irish population decreased by about 20%, the Ukrainian increased about 6%. Wikipedia tells me demographic deficit gets counted nowadays. The decrease in the Russian population due to capitalist restoration no doubt is divine justice. Death to the Stalinist peoples!***

***Official irony tag


faustusnotes 01.30.19 at 5:13 am

Sebastian, there is a wikipedia entry about allegation of united states support for the Khmer Rouge. Maybe you should read it?


DocAmazing 01.30.19 at 8:47 am

Please add to that clarification of US (and direct Thatcherite British) support for the Khmer Rouge: it’s really past time to retire that tired old slander–that Chomsky supported or made excuses for the Khmer Rouge. What Chomsky said was that during the fog of war, it was impossible to tell whether atrocity stories out of Kampuchea/Cambodia were real or propaganda. If anyone has a quote from Chomsky supporting the Khmer Rouge, put it up and cite its source; otherwise, walk away from this tired old lie.


Orange Watch 01.30.19 at 2:37 pm

It occurs to me that part of the reason why there’s such reluctance to compare the crimes of imperialism to the crimes of Stalin or Hitler might be (in addition to the obvious and as-always-noxious invocation of double effect) that most regimes responsible for imperialist horrors were not noticeably extremist. They were run-of-the-mill regimes of their day, not radical “special cases”. With a Hitler or Stalin you can argue that this is what right-wing or left-wing extremists might end up as if left unchecked to reach the maximal excesses of their philosophy, but from such a perspective imperialist evil had no terrible warning signs and basically consisted of superficially decent moderates convincing themselves that those others over there don’t have the same rights and standing that their deserving citizens do.

Admittedly, I’m quite possibly overthinking this, as typical proponents of “But Stalin!” arguments tend to play a sort of reverse version of No True Socialist so they can say that every real socialist gov’t is a totalitarian communist death machine, and thus the reason imperialism gets ignored is probably more often than not simply that this group wants an unequivocal monopoly on moral high ground.


Z 01.30.19 at 3:10 pm

Sebastian H trying to pin the Khmer Rouge on the right is an odd move. It was a communist organization.

I wasn’t trying to pin the Khmer Rouge on the right. I was pointing out that Kissinger and Brzezinski (and more generally the foreign policy establishment of the United States) offered much more concrete support for the Khmer Rouge than Chomsky ever did (seeing it is unclear that Chomsky ever offered any, and if he did, it had absolutely no impact on the perpetuation of that regime, whereas the US absolutely did support it, diplomatically and materially, albeit in the latter case mostly indirectly). So if you want to mention Chomsky as a supporter of the Khmer Rouge because of his skepticism about initial reports of the atrocities they committed (in my view, that’s a misunderstanding of his published positions but say you want to go that route), then the very least you can do is mention those who actually supported and helped them for more than a decade afterwards.

We are talking about the politics of disillusionment

Yes, and I was expressing my dismay at the statement “The last 100 years have had high profile disasters clearly pinnable on leftism so [b]the[/b] disillusioned were leftists” (my emphasis) which, it seems to me, strongly suggest at the very least that the set of people disillusioned by political ideology following a disaster are included in the set of people with leftist inclinations. Three endogenous Communist revolutions changed the history of the 20th century, and arguably the world. Each one of them followed the disillusionment of vast populations following disasters “clearly pinnable on rightism.” These are (pretty salient) counter-examples to your statement that “the disillusioned were leftists”.

Of course I don’t object to the statement that some of the disillusioned in the last 100 years have been on the left because of disasters, but that’s a much weaker statement.

Thanks for the nice words, even as I was criticizing what you wrote. You know very well, I hope, that I have the same high appreciation of your contributions here.


Stephen 01.30.19 at 8:27 pm

Orange Watch @54: a bit peripheral to the main subject, but you’re so far adrift from reality I have to say something.

That in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s “a right-wing government was responsible”. Well, it’s true that when the Famine started the UK Government was Conservative, led by Sir John “Orange” Peel. And it’s also true that, in a general sort of way, the Conservatives (ex-Tories) might be reasonably described as right-wing – hostile to the French Revolution, opposed to Reform – and their opponents the Liberals (ex Whigs) as left-wing – favouring the Revolution, bringing in Parliamentary Reform.

But how you could argue that Peel’s Government was responsible for the Famine is beyond me. It was caused by a coincidence of fungal disease imported from America, beyond the power of any government whatever, and the previous traditional Irish custom of subdividing tenancies between heirs, which could only have been prevented by a tyrannical interference with normal law.

When the Famine began, Peel’s Government did all the right things, declaring that the people must not be allowed to starve; importing American maize; nobody starved. The problem came when Peel was overthrown (by a Commons vote including Irish MPs against him) and a Liberal, generally left-wing government, abolished his relief schemes: too late, they brought back British Government relief schemes that at their peak were feeding 3 million a day.

Call that a “British-manufactured famine” if you want to.


Peter T 01.30.19 at 10:13 pm

The left-right blame game is, as noted, often juvenile.

Still, if one wants to understand what led to disasters, it helps to pay attention to the background. It might be, for instance, that a peasantry subject to several years of bombing would seek a bloody revenge on those they blamed for their suffering. It might also be that a peasantry oppressed by an alien regime intent on extracting every possible degree of surplus might be vulnerable to famine.


LFC 01.31.19 at 2:00 am

For various reasons I’m no longer all that much inclined to read an entire Holbo OP when he rambles (and when doesn’t he ramble?) or every word of the ensuing thread, but I did just read the story in the OP about Art Young napping during his Espionage Act trial and then waking up in time to ruin the prosecutor’s closing argument. It is, as Holbo says, a good story. (Espionage Act prosecutions were, I think, more often successful, as in, among others, the case of Debs.)

A point that some people will already know and others may not is that it was the Espionage Act prosecutions that arguably marked the beginnings of what’s generally thought of as “modern” First Amendment jurisprudence. Holmes’s famous “marketplace of ideas” dissent came in the 1919 Abrams v. U.S. case, which was an Espionage Act/Sedition Act case. The Wikipedia article on Abrams minimizes the subsequent influence of Holmes’s dissent, pointing out (among other things) that the majority in Citizens United (2010) rejected a “marketplace of ideas” argument made by the dissenters. While I assume that that’s an accurate characterization of Citizens United, there is almost a century between Abrams and Citizens United and, except for a short reference to Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Wikipedia article really doesn’t discuss how the Abrams dissent did or did not influence First Am. jurisprudence during that almost-century. Offhand I’m inclined to think it was somewhat more influential than the Wikipedia article suggests. At any rate, since this year in fact marks the hundredth anniversary of Holmes’s dissent in Abrams, it would be a fitting time for someone to have the discussion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some law review symposiums on the subject were in preparation (though I generally don’t read law reviews or, for the most part, legal blogs for that matter).

p.s. I realize the above is off-topic and the thread can now return to political conversions etc.


Orange Watch 01.31.19 at 4:35 am

This is going far afield indeed. But since you felt so compelled, I’ll respond. If I looked far adrift from reality, that speaks only of your poor eyesight. At no time did I refer to the Irish Potato Famine – the phrase you quote was literally a hyperlink regarding the Bengal famine 100y later. In context, that was far more pertinent time-wise given that I raised it in response to a claim that the significant sins of imperialist capitalist countries were 19th century or earlier, as opposed to recent Soviet/Chinese/Khmer communist ones. Bengal’s famine, I will remind you, was under the staunchly imperialist Churchill, whose capitalist credentials should not be under question, and who further meets your narrower criteria of being unquestionably a conservative.

If I were to point to the Irish famine, I’d’ve done so by reversing the formula that was being discussed: invoking not “the right”, but rather capitalist regimes. That is the crux of the juvenile and tiresome blame-game we were discussing, BTW; it’s not “left bad, right good” so much as “leftism is bad because it inevitably becomes murderous totalitarian communism, while rightwing capitalism is an unimpeachable beacon of liberty that can’t meaningfully devolve into evil without first succumbing to honeyed socialist lies”. If you’ve never seen this game played, I envy you, but I suppose you might not appreciate its, erm, “nuances”. It’s in no way anything so modest as “left-leaning liberal democracy is more callous and hawkish than right-leaning liberal democracy”. It’s not “right vs. left” – it’s capitalist vs. anything left of the speaker, which is inevitably identified as nascent communist genocide; all good is owed to the market and all evil to collectivist impulses. So even if I had been referring to a Labor gov’t within a capitalist nation – which, again, I was not – that’s not how this pointless adolescent nonsense keeps score.


faustusnotes 01.31.19 at 10:40 am

We can also thank the right for supporting the Taliban, and for the nasty little trick of trying to lay claim to a women’s rights justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, after years of ignoring a feminist campaign to stop supporting the Taliban because of their repression of women. With the extra Orwellian cherry of editing the final credits of Rambo IV to remove the dedication to the “brave freedom fighters” of Afghanistan.

That act of breathtaking hypocrisy is well beyond any of Stalin’s moral gymnastics, which had Koestler so exercised in Darkness at Noon. And of course the Taliban themselves were an intensely right wing organization.

Then there’s the Iran-Iraq war. It’s remarkable how many right-wing moral failures slide out of view, while the rich run around comparing AOC to Stalin…


F 01.31.19 at 2:35 pm

Conservatives have always loved their lurid conversion tales, so much so that you can make a good living fabricating a(n) (im)plausible story and selling it to Regnery Publishing. See Mike Warnke, John Todd, Walid Shoebat, Ergun Kaner, Kamal Saleem, Rebecca Brown, Lauren Stratford, etc.

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