Friday, August 14, 2020

Le Peuple, C'est Moi

It happened that when this meme was posted on Facebook today I was listening to the left economist Richard Wolff's radio program, and in comparing feudalism, capitalism, and communism Wolff kept referring to what a communist society "is" like. But there are no existing communist societies, are there? It's like talking about a unicorn society/economy.

I agree with Michael Parenti on that point. Any real-world socialist or communist society will be tainted by reality. Which probably explains why the "No True Scotsman" move is as popular among socialists and communists as it is among Christians and scientists: confronted with serious problems, they just say "But that's not real socialism!" And maybe they're right.

I haven't read much Parenti. But if he's excusing real crimes and atrocities by real-world socialist governments, that won't do either. I've often talked to people who do that, and they too point to an ideal, pie-in-the-sky socialism that won't and can't ever exist. We have to criticize the crimes of socialist regimes as doggedly as (I hope) we criticize the crimes of capitalist regimes. I support the Cuban Revolution, for example, but I'm critical of the imprisonment of homosexuals there. One important difficulty, of course, is getting accurate information about those places when the air is full of propaganda. The same is true of Venezuela: I'm perfectly willing to criticize Maduro, but in order to do that I have to have accurate information about what he's doing, and the US corporate media publish an endless stream of lies about him and his predecessor Hugo Chavez.  Some of the accusations might turn out to be accurate, but many are certainly false. 

I also know that the US government, not only Trump but Obama and Bush before him, care nothing about the rights and freedoms of Venezuelans, so I know that their attempts to remove Maduro aren't motivated by concern for human rights.  For that reason I'm not interested in criticizing Maduro until the US and their clients stop trying to strangle Venezuela, and that is not likely to happen.  Since any criticisms I could make of Maduro could only serve to justify further US violence in Venezuela, I'm not particularly interested in trying to evaluate the accusations against him, let alone join the chorus of toadies denouncing him.

In the economist Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999, 151), he wrote:
Are the citizens of third world countries indifferent to political and democratic rights? This claim, which is often made, is again based on too little empirical evidence ... The only way of verifying this would be to put the matter to democratic testing in free elections with freedom of opposition and expression -- precisely the things that the supporters of authoritarianism do not allow to happen. It is not clear at all how this proposition can be checked when the ordinary citizens are given little political opportunity to express their views on this and even less to dispute the claims made by the authorities in office. The downgrading of these rights and freedoms is certainly part of the value system of the government leaders in many third world countries, but to take that to be the view of the people is to beg a very big question.
Indeed, Sen continues:
It is thus of some interest to note that when the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, tried out a similar argument in India, to justify the “emergency” she had misguidedly declared in the mid-1970s, an election was called that divided the voters precisely on this issue. In that fateful election, fought largely on the acceptability of the “emergency,” the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected, and the Indian electorate—one of the poorest in the world—showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than it was in complaining about economic poverty. To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that poor people in general do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim. Similar points can be made by observing the struggle for democratic freedoms in South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma (or Myanmar) and elsewhere in Asia. Similarly, while political freedom is widely denied in Africa, there have been movements and protests about that fact whenever circumstances have permitted, even though military dictators have given few opportunities in this respect.
In principle, existing self-identified socialist governments are valid targets for criticism just as existing capitalist governments are, and anyone who claims otherwise is arguing in bad faith. It seems to me that apologists for socialist regimes oscillate between "Those reports are false - imperialist, counterrevolutionary propaganda!" and "Those reports are true, but the comrades don't want your bourgeois human rights! They're happy to sacrifice themselves [and others] for the Revolution!" And that's a giveaway.  To repeat: mainstream news media promulgate US propaganda against official enemies, which makes it hard to criticize their abuses fairly.  When someone agrees that abuses are happening and justifies them in the name of the Revolution, however, then the question of the reliability of the reports has already been set aside by the revolutionary apologists. 

I don't know where Parenti comes down on this question.  His basic point seems valid if I understand it correctly: a real-world socialist government will be flawed.  But that's exactly why it would be necessary to criticize it.  Many criticisms will be invalid, in bad faith, unrealistic.  There's no way to decide which are bad in advance, so the hard work of informing ourselves and making judgments, with full awareness of our own limitations, can't be shirked.

Anyone who treats criticism as improper in principle might as well work for the US government or its subordinate states: the playbook is the same.  Noam Chomsky likes to point out that when US media talk about the "national interest," they are referring to the interests of the richest people, a tiny minority of the population.  Likewise, when many socialists (I'm not going to judge whether they're "real" socialists or not) speak of "the people," what they mean are small groups of revolutionary elites.  So be it; but let's be clear about it.