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Culture War Roundup for the week of May 20, 2024

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Grandmother, What big teeth you have!
Part 2: Censorship in the Soviet Union

(Note: This continues an earlier post on how Russian intellectuals failed to foresee the brutality of the Soviet communist regime, and discussing certain hallmarks that tyrannical ideologies tend to display, even in their early stages.)

Plato wrote 2500 years ago that when a society ceases to honor virtue, that society is ripe for descent into tyranny. The emerging tyrannical ideology, he wrote, will be advanced by a coalition of drones -- those who do no useful work -- consisting of three separate factions: bureaucrats, criminals, and those who live on handouts [The Republic, VIII]. As they gather power on the road to tyrannical rule, one of the first things the drones begin to do, according to Plato, is to try and silence the speech of their political opponents:

While the keener sort [of drones] speak and act, the rest keep buzzing about the bema [public speech platform] and do not suffer a word to be said on the other side [The Republic, VIII].

Plato’s observation has proven to be prescient: tyrannical regimes have often attempted to silence their political opponents through intimidation and harassment, even before they gained the political power enact legal censorship. The Nazis, for example, while they may have been on the other side of the political spectrum from Plato's archetypal tyrant, began employing such tactics long before they officially came to power in 1933. Indeed, before Nazis were even a viable political force at all, Nazi paramilitary thugs -- "Brownshirts" or "Stormtroopers" -- began harassing attendees and speakers at political gatherings opposed to Naziism.

To be fair, Marxist agitators tried to harass Nazis at their political events as well, and one of the functions of the Brownshirts was to prevent that; and if that was all the Brownshirts had done, they would not have foreshadowed the monstrous tyranny that German Naziism was to become. If you had lived in Germany in 1925 and had been wondering what the Nazis might do if they came to power, one clue would have been their attempts to suppress opposing political speech. Another would be their militant identity politics: advocating discrimination and collective punishment against an alleged historical exploiter class (viz., the Jews). Soviet communism, like Naziism, bore these hallmarks of tyranny early in its emergence, long before the Bolsheviks formed their dictatorial regime. In a previous post I discussed the role of identity politics in the early rise of Soviet communism. This article will discuss the phenomenon of Soviet censorship, which emerged early on in subtle forms, and then unfolded with ever-growing virulence as the ideology rose to power — and which bears a striking resemblance to the cancel culture and censoriousness of today’s woke ideology.

Censorship in the Early Bolshevik Movement

Before October of 1917, the Bolshevik party in Russia was not in a position to censor anything. Indeed, before 1905 the Bolshevik party was not in a position of sufficient power to realistically dream of censoring anything. Yet, even at that time, while giving some lip service to freedom of the press (which he would later revoke), Lenin was advocating strict, top-down orthodoxy and cancel culture within his sphere of control, which at that time consisted of the party itself:

Freedom of speech and the press must be complete. But then freedom of association must be complete too. I am bound to accord you, in the name of free speech, the full right to shout, lie and write to your heart’s content. But you are bound to grant me, in the name of freedom of association, the right to enter into, or withdraw from, association with people advocating this or that view. The party is a voluntary association, which would inevitably break up, first ideologically and then physically, if it did not cleanse itself of people advocating anti-party views. [Lenin (1905): "Party Organisation and Party Literature"]

On one hand this passage may seem innocuous: any organization is entitled to reject, or eject, would-be members who are working against the goals of the organization -- and the goal of the Bolshevik party was an ideological one. On the other hand, for example, even if you think of Donald Trump, or, respectively, Joe Biden, as a despot of some kind, I submit that it would be a bit jarring to hear either one of them speak publicly in the language of cleansing their ranks of anti-party views. It is one thing to say that someone is working toward goals that are inconsistent with those of an organization and is therefore unwelcome in it; it is another thing to label this as a cleansing -- as if anyone who departs from the party line is filth.

Moreover, recall that Lenin did not countenance deviation from (his version of) socialist ideology in the slightest degree [Lenin (1902): "What is to be done?"]. Correspondingly, he writes that there should be no independent press within the socialist movement, but that the only socialist literature should be official party literature:

All Social-Democratic literature must become Party literature. Every newspaper, journal, publishing house, etc., must immediately set about reorganizing its work, leading up to a situation in which it will, in one form or another, be integrated into one Party organization or another. [Lenin (1905): "Party Organization and Party Literature"]

We see that the idea of ideological purity -- intolerant of any deviation and enforced from the top down -- was already present in Lenin's public writing in 1905. In this early stage, Lenin was not yet advocating official government censorship [Kenez (1981): "Lenin and the Freedom of the Press"]. However, by 1917, on the eve of the Bolshevik coup d'etat, Lenin reversed the lip service he had previously given to freedom of the press -- on the grounds that government non-interference merely sets the stage for the spread of misinformation:

The capitalists (and many SRs and Mensheviks following them either through misunderstanding or inertia) call freedom of the press that situation in which censorship is abolished and all parties freely publish any paper they please. In reality this is not freedom of the press, but freedom for the rich, for the bourgeoisie to mislead the oppressed and exploited masses. [Lenin (1917): How to Guarantee the Success of the Constituent Assembly]

As soon as the Bolsheviks seized power October 1917, one of their first actions was to systematically confiscate the presses of major opposing newspapers. Within a year, only one point of view was to be seen in the Russian press -- and within a few years practically every newspaper, theater, and publishing house in the former Russian Empire was under strict supervision, if not direct control, of the Soviet government. All to protect the victims of historical class oppression from misinformation by historical class exploiters and their hangers-on. Of course.

The Blooming of Lenin's Tyranny

Before coming to power in 1917, Lenin had lived through Tsarist censorship and wartime censorship in Russia -- both of which had been applied to his own writing -- in addition to a period of relative freedom of the press, which occurred in the roughly ten-year span between the fall of the Tsar and the entry of Russian into World War I. Having tasted from both wells, Lenin's response could have been to dedicate himself to fighting against censorship and authoritarianism of all kinds. It wasn't.

Decades earlier, Karl Marx had written that the working class, when they had grown sick enough of being oppressed by their employers, would spontaneously revolt and seize power, forming a "dictatorship of the proletariat" with no official government. These ideals of spontaneous working-class revolution and stateless society were fundamental to Marxism, and Lenin opposed them so staunchly that he could not rightly be called a Marxist. Hence, we have the term Marxist-Leninist for the political philosophy of Lenin and his followers in the early Soviet Union. In contrast to Marx, Lenin wrote that the working class would never spontaneously revolt against the foundations of capitalism, but instead would merely try to strike a better deal with their employers though collective bargaining and moderate government regulation. He believed, therefore, that the working class would have to be guided from without, so to speak, by forceful intellectual and political leaders:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals...

To belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology. There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology, ... Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy. [Lenin (1902): What is to be done?]

Reading Lenin's words in 1902, one might have wondered how, exactly, the working class was to be "brought under the wing of the socialist party", and induced not to "turn aside from it [Marxist-Leninist ideology] in the slightest degree". Could Lenin have meant that the people just need a good talking to, in order to achieve and maintain ideological purity? In hindsight we know that is not what he meant by any means, but we also know that many people -- even within the party and sympathetic to it -- were blindsided by murderous brutality of the regime that would emerge from the Bolshevik Revolution. I submit that the signs they missed included Lenin's contemptuous intellectual elitism, his sense of being entitled to be agreed with and obeyed (under the wing), and his militant intolerance of opposing ideas even before he had the power to legally censor them. Sound familiar?

Ideologically speaking, Lenin pivoted away from Marx's notion of a "dictatorship of the proletariat", and towards a dictatorship on behalf of the proletariat, but directed by the communist government, led by himself. In case one wondered what Lenin meant by dictatorship, he would soon make that quite clear: "dictatorship means unlimited power based on force" [Lenin (1906): The Victory of the Cadets]. In theory, practically unlimited power might be used exclusively for kind and helpful purposes: to fight injustice, and rescue the oppressed from their oppressors, like Superman and the Fantastic Four. That is the way Lenin talked about using his power before he got it, but people who strive for power sometimes do not to use it the way they say they are going to. Those who champion a narrative of militant identity politics -- that is, collective punishment of historical class oppressors -- are particularly likely to bloom into tyrants as they gather power. If, in addition, they have a strong impulse to control what other people are allowed to say and write, then it is practically a theorem that they will abuse whatever political power they eventually get their hands on.

I wonder if this series will eventually cover the Tiflis bank robbery under "thuggery", because the number of people the Bolsheviks managed to kill in a single bank robbery is quite astonishing.

What's interesting about Lenin's writings is that he's usually pretty forthright about what he wanted and planned. For much of the 20th century, there was an internecine dispute between orthodox Communists and a motley group of Western intellectuals (heavily influenced by the trots) about whether Stalin had "betrayed the Revolution." But Stalin was an organic evolution, and Lenin and especially Trotsky didn't just theoretically support measures of brutal repression but actively executed them. Stalin won in the 1930s because he was the moderate; Trotsky's point of view was something like there wasn't enough worldwide violence, not that there was too much. Naturally, once he decisively lost the fight, he changed his tune, but it's unlikely anything really changed inside his head until his death.

it's unlikely anything really changed inside his head until his death.

Was this a deliberate choice of phrase, I hope? IMHO Trotsky ice axe jokes never truly get old. Just like Trotsky.

One of the coolest things I ever got to see in a museum was the actual ice pick used to do the job

It's an ice axe, like REI has on its doors, not an ice pick like James Bond uses in Spectre. It's at the "International Spy Musem" in Washington DC.

Yeah, workshopped it for a minute or two and that's the best I could come up with. And agreed, Trotsky ice axe jokes will never get old.

"Entered his brain"? "Penetrated his thick skull"?

What's interesting about Lenin's writings is that he's usually pretty forthright about what he wanted and planned.

Yet so many people thought, "It's just a figure of speech; he doesn't really mean...". Kind of like Hamas.

Lenin was not exactly secretive, but from my reading his tone did become more militant as time went on, at least up until 1917 -- and, secretive or not, the carnage caught many people by surprise. It reminds me of the woke meme, what did you think decolonization meant?.

I always heard this line as a kid. That the Communists really meant well and sharing is good, but it just ran against human nature or got corrupted by bad people. Then you read what Marx and Lenin actually wrote and you realize they wanted revolution and power more than anything else. The feel good stuff was secondary to, and a justification for, the hatred and lust for power and violence.