Aron, Leon. Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. ISBN 0-312-25185-8.

November 2001 Permalink

Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: Henry Holt, [1996] 1998. ISBN 0-8050-5668-8.

December 2003 Permalink

Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Washington: Regnery Publishing, [1952] 2002. ISBN 0-89526-789-6.

September 2003 Permalink

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-19-507132-8.

January 2002 Permalink

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Translated by Florence Wischnewetzky; edited with a foreword by Victor Kiernan. London: Penguin Books, [1845, 1886, 1892] 1987. ISBN 0-14-044486-6.
A Web edition of this title is available online.

January 2003 Permalink

Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1.
This is a book which has been sorely needed for a long, long time, and the author has done a masterful job of identifying, disentangling, and dismantling the mountain of disinformation and obfuscation which has poisoned so much of the political discourse of the last half century.

As early as 1946, George Orwell observed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. This situation has only worsened in the succeeding decades, and finally we have here a book which thoroughly documents the origins of fascism as a leftist, collectivist ideology, grounded in Rousseau's (typically mistaken and pernicious) notion of the “general will”, and the direct descendant of the God-state first incarnated in the French Revolution and manifested in the Terror.

I'd have structured this book somewhat differently, but then when you've spent the last fifteen years not far from the French border, you may adopt a more top-down rationalist view of things; call it “geographical hazard”. There is a great deal of discussion here about the definitions and boundaries among the categories “progressive”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “socialist”, “communist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “reactionary”, “social Darwinist”, and others, but it seems to me there's a top-level taxonomic divide which sorts out much of the confusion: collectivism versus individualism. Collectivists—socialists, communists, fascists—believe the individual to be subordinate to the state and subject to its will and collective goals, while individualists believe the state, to the limited extent it exists, is legitimate only as it protects the rights of the sovereign citizens who delegate to it their common defence and provision of public goods.

The whole question of what constitutes conservatism is ill-defined until we get to the Afterword where, on p. 403, there is a beautiful definition which would far better have appeared in the Introduction: that conservatism consists in conserving what is, and that consequently conservatives in different societies may have nothing whatsoever in common among what they wish to conserve. The fact that conservatives in the United States wish to conserve “private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines” in no way identifies them with conservatives in other societies bent on conserving monarchy, a class system, or a discredited collectivist regime.

Although this is a popular work, the historical scholarship is thorough and impressive: there are 54 pages of endnotes and an excellent index. Readers accustomed to the author's flamboyant humorous style from his writings on National Review Online will find this a much more subdued read, appropriate to the serious subject matter.

Perhaps the most important message of this book is that, while collectivists hurl imprecations of “fascist” or “Nazi” at defenders of individual liberty, it is the latter who have carefully examined the pedigree of their beliefs and renounced those tainted by racism, authoritarianism, or other nostrums accepted uncritically in the past. Meanwhile, the self-described progressives (well, yes, but progress toward what?) have yet to subject their own intellectual heritage to a similar scrutiny. If and when they do so, they'll discover that both Mussolini's Fascist and Hitler's Nazi parties were considered movements of the left by almost all of their contemporaries before Stalin deemed them “right wing”. (But then Stalin called everybody who opposed him “right wing”, even Trotsky.) Woodrow Wilson's World War I socialism was, in many ways, the prototype of fascist governance and a major inspiration of the New Deal and Great Society. Admiration for Mussolini in the United States was widespread, and H. G. Wells, the socialist's socialist and one of the most influential figures in collectivist politics in the first half of the twentieth century said in a speech at Oxford in 1932, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.”

If you're interested in understanding the back-story of the words and concepts in the contemporary political discourse which are hurled back and forth without any of their historical context, this is a book you should read. Fortunately, lots of people seem to be doing so: it's been in the top ten on for the last week. My only quibble may actually be a contributor to its success: there are many references to current events, in particular the 2008 electoral campaign for the U.S. presidency; these will cause the book to be dated when the page is turned on these ephemeral events, and it shouldn't be—the historical message is essential to anybody who wishes to decode the language and subtexts of today's politics, and this book should be read by those who've long forgotten the runners-up and issues of the moment.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

January 2008 Permalink

Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. ISBN 978-0-14-312291-3.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean prison camp. The doctrine of that collectivist Hell-state, as enunciated by tyrant Kim Il Sung, is that “[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” Shin (I refer to him by his family name, as he prefers) committed no crime, but was born into slavery in a labour camp because his parents had been condemned to servitude there due to supposed offences. Shin grew up in an environment so anti-human it would send shivers of envy down the spines of Western environmentalists. In school, he saw a teacher beat a six-year-old classmate to death with a blackboard pointer because she had stolen and hidden five kernels of maize. He witnessed the hanging of his mother and the execution by firing squad of his brother because they were caught contemplating escape from the camp, and he felt only detestation of them because their actions would harm him.

Shin was imprisoned and tortured due to association with his mother and brother, and assigned to work details where accidents which killed workers were routine. Shin accepted this as simply the way life was—he knew nothing of life outside the camp or in the world beyond his slave state. This changed when he made the acquaintance of Park Yong Chul, sent to the camp for some reason after a career which had allowed him to travel abroad and meet senior people in the North Korean ruling class. While working together in the camp's garment factory, Park introduced Shin to a wider world and set him to thinking about escaping the camp. The fact that Shin, who had been recruited to observe Park and inform upon any disloyalty he observed, instead began to conspire with him to escape the camp was the signal act of defiance against tyranny which changed Shin's life.

Shin pulled off a harrowing escape from the camp which left him severely injured, lived by his wits crossing the barren countryside of North Korea, and made it across the border to China, where he worked as a menial farm hand and yet lived in luxury unheard of in North Korea. Raised in the camp, his expectations for human behaviour had nothing to do with the reality outside. As the author observes, “Freedom, in Shin's mind, was just another word for grilled meat.”

Freedom, beyond grilled meat, was something Shin found difficult to cope with. After making his way to South Korea (where the state has programs to integrate North Korean escapees into the society) and then the United States (where, as the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to ever escape, he was a celebrity among groups advocating for human rights in North Korea). But growing up in an intensely anti-human environment, cut off from all information about the outside world, makes it difficult to cope with normal human interactions and the flood of information those born into liberty consider normal.

Much as with Nothing to Envy (September 2011), this book made my blood boil. It is not just the injustice visited upon Shin and all the prisoners of the regime who did not manage to escape, but those in our own societies who would condemn us to comparable servitude in the interest of a “higher good” as they define it.

May 2013 Permalink

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1944] 1994. ISBN 0-226-32061-8.

May 2002 Permalink

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Fatal Conceit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-226-32066-9.
The idiosyncratic, if not downright eccentric, synthesis of evolutionary epistemology, spontaneous emergence of order in self-organising systems, free markets as a communication channel and feedback mechanism, and individual liberty within a non-coercive web of cultural traditions which informs my scribblings here and elsewhere is the product of several decades of pondering these matters, digesting dozens of books by almost as many authors, and discussions with brilliant and original thinkers it has been my privilege to encounter over the years.

If, however, you want it all now, here it is, in less than 160 pages of the pellucid reasoning and prose for which Hayek is famed, ready to be flashed into your brain's philosophical firmware in a few hours' pleasant reading. This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I picked it up a couple of days ago and devoured it, exclaiming “Yes!”, “Bingo!”, and “Precisely!” every few pages. The book is subtitled “The Errors of Socialism”, which I believe both misstates and unnecessarily restricts the scope of the actual content, for the errors of socialism are shared by a multitude of other rationalistic doctrines (including the cult of design in software development) which, either conceived before biological evolution was understood, or by those who didn't understand evolution or preferred the outlook of Aristotle and Plato for aesthetic reasons (“evolution is so messy, and there's no rational plan to it”), assume, as those before Darwin and those who reject his discoveries today, that the presence of apparent purpose implies the action of rational design. Hayek argues (and to my mind demonstrates) that the extended order of human interaction: ethics, morality, division of labour, trade, markets, diffusion of information, and a multitude of other components of civilisation fall between biological instinct and reason, poles which many philosophers consider a dichotomy.

This middle ground, the foundation of civilisation, is the product of cultural evolution, in which reason plays a part only in variation, and selection occurs just as brutally and effectively as in biological evolution. (Cultural and biological evolution are not identical, of course; in particular, the inheritance of acquired traits is central in the development of cultures, yet absent in biology.)

The “Fatal Conceit” of the title is the belief among intellectuals and social engineers, mistaking the traditions and institutions of human civilisation for products of reason instead of evolution, that they can themselves design, on a clean sheet of paper as it were, a one-size-fits-all eternal replacement which will work better than the product of an ongoing evolutionary process involving billions of individuals over millennia, exploring a myriad of alternatives to find what works best. The failure to grasp the limits of reason compared to evolution explains why the perfectly consistent and often tragic failures of utopian top-down schemes never deters intellectuals from championing new (or often old, already discredited) ones. Did I say I liked this book?

March 2005 Permalink

Haynes, John Earl and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-08462-5.
Messages encrypted with a one-time pad are absolutely secure unless the adversary obtains a copy of the pad or discovers some non-randomness in the means used to prepare it. Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic used one-time pads extensively, avoiding the vulnerabilities of machine ciphers which permitted World War II codebreakers to read German and Japanese traffic. The disadvantage of one-time pads is key distribution: since every message consumes as many groups from the one-time pad as its own length and pads are never reused (hence the name), embassies and agents in the field require a steady supply of new one-time pads, which can be a logistical nightmare in wartime and risk to covert operations. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 caused Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic to explode in volume, surpassing the ability of Soviet cryptographers to produce and distribute new one-time pads. Apparently believing the risk to be minimal, they reacted by re-using one-time pad pages, shuffling them into a different order and sending them to other posts around the world. Bad idea! In fact, reusing one-time pad pages opened up a crack in security sufficiently wide to permit U.S. cryptanalysts, working from 1943 through 1980, to decode more than five thousand pages (some only partially) of Soviet cables from the wartime era. The existence of this effort, later codenamed Project VENONA, and all the decoded material remained secret until 1995 when it was declassified. The most-requested VENONA decrypts may be viewed on-line at the NSA Web site. (A few months ago, there was a great deal of additional historical information on VENONA at the NSA site, but at this writing the links appear to be broken.) This book has relatively little to say about the cryptanalysis of the VENONA traffic. It is essentially a history of Soviet espionage in the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s as documented by the VENONA decrypts. Some readers may be surprised at how little new information is presented here. In essence, VENONA messages completely confirmed what Whittaker Chambers (Witness, September 2003) and Elizabeth Bentley testified to in the late 1940s, and FBI counter-intelligence uncovered. The apparent mystery of why so many who spied for the Soviets escaped prosecution and/or conviction is now explained by the unwillingness of the U.S. government to disclose the existence of VENONA by using material from it in espionage cases. The decades long controversy over the guilt of the Rosenbergs (The Rosenberg File, August 2002) has been definitively resolved by disclosure of VENONA—incontrovertible evidence of their guilt remained secret, out of reach to historians, for fifty years after their crimes. This is a meticulously-documented work of scholarly history, not a page-turning espionage thriller; it is probably best absorbed in small doses rather than one cover to cover gulp.

February 2004 Permalink

Hergé [Georges Remi]. Les aventures de Tintin au pays des Soviets. Bruxelles: Casterman, [1930] 1999. ISBN 2-203-00100-3.

October 2001 Permalink

Hicks, Stephen R. C. Explaining Postmodernism. Phoenix: Scholargy, 2004. ISBN 1-59247-642-2.
Starting more than ten years ago, with the mass pile-on to the Internet and the advent of sites with open content and comment posting, I have been puzzled by the extent of the anger, hatred, and nihilism which is regularly vented in such fora. Of all the people of my generation with whom I have associated over the decades (excepting, of course, a few genuine nut cases), I barely recall anybody who seemed to express such an intensively negative outlook on life and the world, or who were so instantly ready to impute “evil” (a word used incessantly for the slightest difference of opinion) to those with opposing views, or to inject ad hominem arguments or obscenity into discussions of fact and opinion. Further, this was not at all confined to traditionally polarising topics; in fact, having paid little attention to most of the hot-button issues in the 1990s, I first noticed it in nerdy discussions of topics such as the merits of different microprocessors, operating systems, and programming languages—matters which would seem unlikely, and in my experience had only rarely in the past, inspired partisans on various sides to such passion and vituperation. After a while, I began to notice one fairly consistent pattern: the most inflamed in these discussions, those whose venting seemed entirely disproportionate to the stakes in the argument, were almost entirely those who came of age in the mid-1970s or later; before the year 2000 I had begun to call them “hate kiddies”, but I still didn't understand why they were that way. One can speak of “the passion of youth”, of course, which is a real phenomenon, but this seemed something entirely different and off the scale of what I recall my contemporaries expressing in similar debates when we were of comparable age.

This has been one of those mysteries that's puzzled me for some years, as the phenomenon itself seemed to be getting worse, not better, and with little evidence that age and experience causes the original hate kiddies to grow out of their youthful excess. Then along comes this book which, if it doesn't completely explain it, at least seems to point toward one of the proximate causes: the indoctrination in cultural relativist and “postmodern” ideology which began during the formative years of the hate kiddies and has now almost entirely pervaded academia apart from the physical sciences and engineering (particularly in the United States, whence most of the hate kiddies hail). In just two hundred pages of main text, the author traces the origins and development of what is now called postmodernism to the “counter-enlightenment” launched by Rousseau and Kant, developed by the German philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, then transplanted to the U.S. in the 20th. But the philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism, which are essentially an extreme relativism which goes as far as denying the existence of objective truth or the meaning of texts, doesn't explain the near monolithic adherence of its champions to the extreme collectivist political Left. You'd expect that philosophical relativism would lead its believers to conclude that all political tendencies were equally right or wrong, and that the correct political policy was as impossible to determine as ultimate scientific truth.

Looking at the philosophy espoused by postmodernists alongside the the policy views they advocate and teach their students leads to the following contradictions which are summarised on p. 184:

  • On the one hand, all truth is relative; on the other hand, postmodernism tells it like it really is.
  • On the one hand, all cultures are equally deserving of respect; on the other, Western culture is uniquely destructive and bad.
  • Values are subjective—but sexism and racism are really evil. (There's that word!—JW)
  • Technology is bad and destructive—and it is unfair that some people have more technology than others.
  • Tolerance is good and dominance is bad—but when postmodernists come to power, political correctness follows.

The author concludes that it is impossible to explain these and other apparent paradoxes and the uniformly Left politics of postmodernists without understanding the history and the failures of collectivist political movements dating from Rousseau's time. On p. 173 is an absolutely wonderful chart which traces the mutation and consistent failure of socialism in its various guises from Marx to the present. With each failure, the response has been not to question the premises of collectivism itself, but rather to redefine its justification, means, and end. As failure has followed failure, postmodernism represents an abject retreat from reason and objectivity itself, either using the philosophy in a Machiavellian way to promote collectivist ideology, or to urge acceptance of the contradictions themselves in the hope of creating what Nietzsche called ressentiment, which leads directly to the “everybody is evil”, “nothing works”, and “truth is unknowable” irrationalism and nihilism which renders those who believe it pliable in the hands of agenda-driven manipulators.

Based on the some of the source citations and the fact that this work was supported in part by The Objectivist Center, the author appears to be a disciple of Ayn Rand, which is confirmed by his Web site. Although the author's commitment to rationalism and individualism, and disdain for their adversaries, permeates the argument, the more peculiar and eccentric aspects of the Objectivist creed are absent. For its size, insight, and crystal clear reasoning and exposition, I know of no better introduction to how postmodernism came to be, and how it is being used to advance a collectivist ideology which has been thoroughly discredited by sordid experience. And I think I'm beginning to comprehend how the hate kiddies got that way.

May 2007 Permalink

Horowitz, David. Radical Son. New York: Touchstone Books, 1997. ISBN 0-684-84005-7.
One the mysteries I have never been able to figure out—I remember discussing it with people before I left the U.S., so that makes it at least fifteen years of bewilderment on my part—is why so many obviously highly intelligent people, some of whom have demonstrated initiative and achieved substantial success in productive endeavours, are so frequently attracted to collectivist ideologies which deny individual excellence, suppress individualism, and seek to replace achievement with imposed equality in mediocrity. Even more baffling is why so many people remain attracted to these ideas which are as thoroughly discredited by the events of the twentieth century as any in the entire history of human intellectual endeavour, in a seeming willingness to ignore evidence, even when it takes the form of a death toll in the tens of millions of human beings.

This book does not supply a complete answer, but it provides several important pieces of the puzzle. It is the most enlightening work on this question I've read since Hayek's The Fatal Conceit (March 2005), and complements it superbly. While Hayek's work is one of philosophy and economics, Radical Son is a searching autobiography by a person who was one of the intellectual founders and leaders of the New Left in the 1960s and 70s. The author was part of the group which organised the first demonstration against the Vietnam war in Berkeley in 1962, published the standard New Left history of the Cold War, The Free World Colossus in 1965, and in 1968, the very apogee of the Sixties, joined Ramparts magazine, where he rapidly rose to a position of effective control, setting its tone through the entire period of radicalisation and revolutionary chaos which ensued. He raised the money for the Black Panther Party's “Learning Center” in Oakland California, and became an adviser and regular companion of Huey Newton. Throughout all of this his belief in the socialist vision of the future, the necessity of revolution even in a democratic society, and support for the “revolutionary vanguard”, however dubious some of their actions seemed, never wavered.

He came to these convictions almost in the cradle. Like many of the founders of the New Left (Tom Hayden was one of the rare exceptions), Horowitz was a “red diaper baby”. In his case both his mother and father were members of the Communist Party of the United States and met through political activity. Although the New Left rejected the Communist Party as a neo-Stalinist anachronism, so many of its founders had parents who were involved with it directly or knowingly in front organisations, they formed part of a network of acquaintances even before they met as radicals in their own right. It is somewhat ironic that these people who believed themselves to be and were portrayed in the press as rebels and revolutionaries were, perhaps more than their contemporaries, truly their parents' children, carrying on their radical utopian dream without ever questioning anything beyond the means to the end.

It was only in 1974, when Betty Van Patter, a former Ramparts colleague he had recommended for a job helping the Black Panthers sort out their accounts, was abducted and later found brutally murdered, obviously by the Panthers (who expressed no concern when she disappeared, and had complained of her inquisitiveness), that Horowitz was confronted with the true nature of those he had been supporting. Further, when he approached others who were, from the circumstances of their involvement, well aware of the criminality and gang nature of the Panthers well before he, they continued to either deny the obvious reality or, even worse, deliberately cover it up because they still believed in the Panther mission of revolution. (To this day, nobody has been charged with Van Patter's murder.)

The contemporary conquest of Vietnam and Cambodia and the brutal and bloody aftermath, the likelihood of which had also been denied by the New Left (as late as 1974, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda released a film titled Introduction to the Enemy which forecast a bright future of equality and justice when Saigon fell), reinforced the author's second thoughts, leading eventually to a complete break with the Left in the mid-1980s and his 1989 book with Peter Collier, Destructive Generation, the first sceptical look at the beliefs and consequences of Sixties radicalism by two of its key participants.

Radical Son mixes personal recollection, politics, philosophy, memoirs of encounters with characters ranging from Bertrand Russell to Abbie Hoffman, and a great deal of painful introspection to tell the story of how reality finally shattered second-generation utopian illusions. Even more valuable, the reader comes to understand the power those delusions have over those who share them, and why seemingly no amount of evidence suffices to induce doubt among those in their thrall, and why the reaction to any former believer who declares their “apostasy” is so immediate and vicious.

Horowitz is a serious person, and this is a serious, and often dismaying and tragic narrative. But one cannot help to be amused by the accounts of New Leftists trying to put their ideology into practice in running communal households, publishing enterprises, and political movements. Inevitably, before long everything blows up in the tediously familiar ways of such things, as imperfect human beings fail to meet the standards of a theory which requires them to deny their essential humanity. And yet they never learn; it's always put down to “errors”, blamed on deviant individuals, oppression, subversion, external circumstances, or some other cobbled up excuse. And still they want to try again, betting the entire society and human future on it.

March 2007 Permalink

Invisible Committee, The. The Coming Insurrection. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, [2007] 2009. ISBN 978-1-58435-080-4.
I have not paid much attention to the “anti-globalisation” protesters who seem to pop up at gatherings of international political and economic leaders, for example at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle in 1999 and the Genoa G8 Summit in 2001. In large part this is because I have more interesting things with which to occupy my time, but also because, despite saturation media coverage of such events, I was unable to understand the agenda of the protesters, apart from smashing windows and hurling epithets and improvised projectiles at the organs of state security. I understand what they're opposed to, but couldn't for the life of me intuit what policies would prevail if they had their way. Still, as they are often described as “anarchists”, I, as a flaming anarchist myself, could not help but be intrigued by those so identified in the legacy media as taking the struggle to the street.

This book, written by an anonymous group of authors, has been hailed as the manifesto of this movement, so I hoped that reading it would provide some insight into what it was all about. My hope was in vain. The writing is so incoherent and the prose so impenetrable that I closed it with no more knowledge of the philosophy and programme of its authors than when I opened it. My general perception of the “anti-globalisation” movement was one of intellectual nonentities spewing inchoate rage at the “system” which produces the wealth that allows them to live their slacker lives and flit from protest to protest around the globe. Well, if this is their manifesto, then indeed that's all there is to it. The text is nearly impossible to decipher, being written in a dialect of no known language. Many paragraphs begin with an unsubstantiated and often absurd assertion, then follow it with successive verb-free sentence fragments which seem to be intended to reinforce the assertion. I suppose that if you read it as a speech before a mass assembly of fanatics who cheer whenever they hear one of their trigger words it may work, but one would expect savvy intellectuals to discern the difference in media and adapt accordingly. Whenever the authors get backed into an irreconcilable logical corner, they just drop an F-bomb and start another paragraph.

These are people so clueless that I'll have to coin a new word for those I've been calling clueless all these many years. As far as I can figure out, they assume that they can trash the infrastructure of the “system”, and all of the necessities of their day to day urban life will continue to flow to them thanks to the magic responsible for that today. These “anarchists” reject the “exploitation” of work—after all, who needs to work? “Aside from welfare, there are various benefits, disability money, accumulated student aid, subsidies drawn off fictitious childbirths, all kinds of trafficking, and so many other means that arise with every mutation of control.” (p. 103) Go anarchism! Death to the state, as long as the checks keep coming! In fact, it is almost certain that the effete would-be philosophes who set crayon (and I don't mean the French word for “pencil”) to paper to produce this work will be among the first wave of those to fall in the great die-off starting between 72 and 96 hours after that event towards which they so sincerely strive: the grid going down. Want to know what I'm talking about? Turn off the water main where it enters your house and see what happens in the next three days if you assume you can't go anywhere else where the water is on. It's way too late to learn about “rooftop vegetable gardens” when the just-in-time underpinnings which sustain modern life come to a sudden halt. Urban intellectuals may excel at publishing blows against the empire, but when the system actually goes down, bet on rural rednecks to be the survivors. Of course, as far as I can figure out what these people want, it may be that Homo sapiens returns to his roots—namely digging for roots and grubs with a pointed stick. Perhaps rather than flying off to the next G-20 meeting to fight the future, they should spend a week in one of the third world paradises where people still live that way and try it out for themselves.

The full text of the book is available online in English and French. Lest you think the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a beacon of rationality and intelligence in a world going dark, it is their university press which distributes this book.

May 2010 Permalink

King, David. The Commissar Vanishes. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. ISBN 0-8050-5295-X.

June 2003 Permalink

Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. New York: Vintage, [1951, 1953, 1981] 1990. ISBN 0-679-72856-2.
This book is an illuminating exploration of life in a totalitarian society, written by a poet and acute observer of humanity who lived under two of the tyrannies of the twentieth century and briefly served one of them. The author was born in Lithuania in 1911 and studied at the university in Vilnius, a city he describes (p. 135) as “ruled in turn by the Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, again the Lithuanians, again the Germans, and again the Russians”—and now again the Lithuanians. An ethnic Pole, he settled in Warsaw after graduation, and witnessed the partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II, conquest and occupation by Germany, “liberation” by the Red Army, and the imposition of Stalinist rule under the tutelage of Moscow. After working with the underground press during the war, the author initially supported the “people's government”, even serving as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassies in Washington and Paris. As Stalinist terror descended upon Poland and the rigid dialectical “Method” was imposed upon intellectual life, he saw tyranny ascendant once again and chose exile in the West, initially in Paris and finally the U.S., where he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961—imagine, an anti-communist at Berkeley!

In this book, he explores the various ways in which the human soul comes to terms with a regime which denies its very existence. Four long chapters explore the careers of four Polish writers he denotes as “Alpha” through “Delta” and the choices they made when faced with a system which offered them substantial material rewards in return for conformity with a rigid system which put them at the service of the State, working toward ends prescribed by the “Center” (Moscow). He likens acceptance of this bargain to swallowing a mythical happiness pill, which, by eliminating the irritations of creativity, scepticism, and morality, guarantees those who take it a tranquil place in a well-ordered society. In a powerful chapter titled “Ketman”—a Persian word denoting fervent protestations of faith by nonbelievers, not only in the interest of self-preservation, but of feeling superior to those they so easily deceive—Milosz describes how an entire population can become actors who feign belief in an ideology and pretend to believe the earnest affirmations of orthodoxy on the part of others while sharing scorn for the few true believers.

The author received the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature.

December 2006 Permalink

Muravchik, Joshua. Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-45-7.

November 2002 Permalink

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, [1938, 1952] 1987. ISBN 0-15-642117-8.
The site makes available electronic editions of this work in both English and Русский which you can read online or download to read at your leisure. All of Orwell's works are in the public domain under Russia's 50 year copyright law.

January 2003 Permalink

Pipes. Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Doubleday, [2001] 2003. ISBN 978-0-8129-6864-4.
This slim volume (just 175 pages) provides, for its size, the best portrait I have encountered of the origins of communist theory, the history of how various societies attempted to implement it in the twentieth century, and the tragic consequences of those grand scale social experiments and their aftermath. The author, a retired professor of history at Harvard University, is one of the most eminent Western scholars of Russian and Soviet history. The book examines communism as an ideal, a program, and its embodiment in political regimes in various countries. Based on the ideals of human equality and subordination of the individual to the collective which date at least back to Plato, communism, first set out as a program of action by Marx and Engels, proved itself almost infinitely malleable in the hands of subsequent theorists and political leaders, rebounding from each self-evident failure (any one of which should, in a rational world, have sufficed to falsify a theory which proclaims itself “scientific”), morphing into yet another infallible and inevitable theory of history. In the words of the immortal Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!”

Regardless of the nature of the society in which the communist program is undertaken and the particular variant of the theory adopted, the consequences have proved remarkably consistent: emergence of an elite which rules through violence, repression, and fear; famine and economic stagnation; and collapse of the individual enterprise and innovation which are the ultimate engine of progress of all kinds. No better example of this is the comparison of North and South Korea on p. 152. Here are two countries which started out identically devastated by Japanese occupation in World War II and then by the Korean War, with identical ethnic makeup, which diverged in the subsequent decades to such an extent that famine killed around two million people in North Korea in the 1990s, at which time the GDP per capita in the North was around US$900 versus US$13,700 in the South. Male life expectancy at birth in the North was 48.9 years compared to 70.4 years in the South, with an infant mortality rate in the North more than ten times that of the South. This appalling human toll was modest compared to the famines and purges of the Soviet Union and Communist China, or the apocalyptic fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot. The Black Book of Communism puts the total death toll due to communism in the twentieth century as between 85 and 100 million, which is half again greater than that of both world wars combined. To those who say “One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”, the author answers, “Apart from the fact that human beings are not eggs, the trouble is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter.” (p. 158)

So effective were communist states in their “big lie” propaganda, and so receptive were many Western intellectuals to its idealistic message, that many in the West were unaware of this human tragedy as it unfolded over the better part of a century. This book provides an excellent starting point for those unaware of the reality experienced by those living in the lands of communism and those for whom that epoch is distant, forgotten history, but who remain, like every generation, susceptible to idealistic messages and unaware of the suffering of those who attempted to put them into practice in the past.

Communism proved so compelling to intellectuals (and, repackaged, remains so) because it promised hope for a new way of living together and change to a rational world where the best and the brightest—intellectuals and experts—would build a better society, shorn of all the conflict and messiness which individual liberty unavoidably entails. The author describes this book as “an introduction to Communism and, at the same time, its obituary.” Maybe—let's hope so. But this book can serve an even more important purpose: as a cautionary tale of how the best of intentions can lead directly to the worst of outcomes. When, for example, one observes in the present-day politics of the United States the creation, deliberate exacerbation, and exploitation of crises to implement a political agenda; use of engineered financial collapse to advance political control over the economy and pauperise and render dependent upon the state classes of people who would otherwise oppose it; the creation, personalisation, and demonisation of enemies replacing substantive debate over policy; indoctrination of youth in collectivist dogma; and a number of other strategies right out of Lenin's playbook, one wonders if the influence of that evil mummy has truly been eradicated, and wishes that the message in this book were more widely known there and around the world.

March 2009 Permalink

Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly. New York: Crown Forum, 2003. ISBN 0-7615-0165-7.

May 2004 Permalink

Radosh, Ronald. Commies. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001. ISBN 1-893554-05-8.

July 2001 Permalink

Radosh, Ronald and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File. 2nd. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-300-07205-8.

August 2002 Permalink

Radosh, Ronald and Allis Radosh. Red Star over Hollywood. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-893554-96-1.
The Hollywood blacklist has become one of the most mythic elements of the mid-20th century Red scare. Like most myths, especially those involving tinseltown, it has been re-scripted into a struggle of good (falsely-accused artists defending free speech) versus evil (paranoid witch hunters bent on censorship) at the expense of a large part of the detail and complexity of the actual events. In this book, drawing upon contemporary sources, recently released documents from the FBI and House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and interviews with surviving participants in the events, the authors patiently assemble the story of what really happened, which is substantially different than the stories retailed by partisans of the respective sides. The evolution of those who joined the Communist Party out of idealism, were repelled by its totalitarian attempts to control their creative work and/or the cynicism of its support for the 1939–1941 Nazi/Soviet pact, yet who risked their careers to save those of others by refusing to name other Party members, is evocatively sketched, along with the agenda of HUAC, which FBI documents now reveal actually had lists of party members before the hearings began, and were thus grandstanding to gain publicity and intimidate the studios into firing those who would not deny Communist affiliations. History isn't as tidy as myth: the accusers were perfectly correct in claiming that a substantial number of prominent Hollywood figures were members of the Communist Party, and the accused were perfectly correct in their claim that apart from a few egregious exceptions, Soviet and pro-communist propaganda was not inserted into Hollywood films. A mystery about one of those exceptions, the 1943 Warner Brothers film Mission to Moscow, which defended the Moscow show trials, is cleared up here. I've always wondered why, since many of the Red-baiting films of the 1950s are cult classics, this exemplar of the ideological inverse (released, after all, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies in World War II) has never made it to video. Well, apparently those who currently own the rights are sufficiently embarrassed by it that apart from one of the rare prints being run on television, the only place you can see it is at the film library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in the archive of the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Radosh is author of Commies (July 2001) and co-author of The Rosenberg File (August 2002).

October 2005 Permalink

Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, [1936] 1959. ISBN 0-451-18784-9.
This is Ayn Rand's first novel, which she described to be “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write”. It is a dark story of life in the Soviet Union in 1925, a year after the death of Lenin and a year before Ayn Rand's own emigration to the United States from St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad, the city in which the story is set. Originally published in 1936, this edition was revised by Rand in 1958, shortly after finishing Atlas Shrugged. Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading this novel before, and was surprised to discover that the characters were, in many ways, more complex and believable and the story less preachy than her later work. Despite the supposedly diametrically opposed societies in which they are set and the ideologies of their authors, this story and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle bear remarkable similarities and are worth reading together for an appreciation of how horribly things can go wrong in any society in which, regardless of labels, ideals, and lofty rhetoric, people do not truly own their own lives.

April 2005 Permalink

Satter, David. Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1996] 2001. ISBN 0-300-08705-5.

May 2002 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.

April 2005 Permalink

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Eos Books, [1921] 1999. ISBN 0-380-63313-2.

March 2002 Permalink