Sunday, March 12, 2017

Humanism and terror

From "Darkness at Noon".

No. 1 is Stalin; Rubashov is a combination of Bukharin, Trotsky and Radek.
Extract from the diary of N. S. Rubashov, on the fifth day of imprisonment

"... The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood. He who will be proved right in the end appears to be wrong and harmful before it. But who will be proved right? It will only be known later. Meanwhile he is bound to act on credit and to sell his soul to the devil, in the hope of history's absolution.

"It is said that No. 1 has Machiavelli's Prince lying permanently by his bedside. So he should: since then, nothing really important has been said about the rules of political ethics. We were the first to replace the nineteenth century's liberal ethics of ‘fair play' by the revolutionary ethics of the twentieth century. In that also we were right: a revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity.

"Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history, but at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible than the old one, that the end justifies the means. We introduced neo-Machiavellism into this country, the others, the counter-revolutionary dictatorships, have clumsily imitated it. We were neo-Machiavellians in the name of universal reason - that was our greatness, the others in the name of a national romanticism, that is their anachronism. That is why we will in the end be absolved by history, but not they.

"Yet for the moment we are thinking and acting on credit. As we have thrown overboard all conventions and rules of cricket-morality, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic. We are under the terrible compulsion to follow our thought down to its final consequence and to act in accordance to it. We are sailing without ballast, therefore each touch on the helm is a matter of life or death.

"A short time ago, our leading agriculturist, B., was shot with thirty of his collaborators because he maintained the opinion that nitrate artificial manure was superior to potash. No. 1 is all for potash; therefore B. and the thirty had to be liquidated as saboteurs.

"In a nationally centralized agriculture, the alternative of nitrate or potash is of enormous importance: it can decide the issue of the next war. If No. 1 was in the right, history will absolve him, and the execution of the thirty-one men will be a mere bagatelle. If he was wrong ...

"It is that alone that matters: who is objectively in the right.

"The cricket-moralists are agitated by quite another problem: whether B. was subjectively in good faith when he recommended nitrogen. If he was not, according to their ethics he should be shot, even if it should subsequently be shown that nitrogen would have been better after all. If he was in good faith, then he should be acquitted and allowed to continue making propaganda for nitrate, even if the country should be ruined by it.

"That is, of course, complete nonsense. For us the question of subjective good faith is of no interest. He who is in the wrong must pay; he who is in the right will be absolved. That is the law of historical credit; it was our law. History has taught us that often lies serve her better than the truth, for man is sluggish and has to be led through the desert for forty years before each step In his development. And he has to be driven through the desert with threats and promises, by imaginary terrors and imaginary consolations, so that he should not sit down prematurely to rest and divert himself by worshipping golden calves. "

"We have learnt history more thoroughly than the others. We differ from all others in our logical consistency. We know that virtue does not matter to history, and that crimes remain unpunished; but that every error had its consequences and revenges itself unto the seventh generation. Therefore we concentrated all our efforts on preventing error and destroying the very seeds of it.

"Never in history has so much power over the future of humanity been concentrated in so few hands as in our case. Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death.

"We were held for madmen because we followed every thought down to its final consequence and acted accordingly. We were compared to the inquisition because, like them, we constantly felt in ourselves the whole weight of responsibility for the super-individual life to come. We resembled the great Inquisitors in that we persecuted the seeds of evil not only in men's deeds, but in their thoughts. We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man's skull.

"We lived under the compulsion of working things out to their final conclusions. Our minds were so tensely charged that the slightest collision caused a mortal short-circuit. Thus we were fated to mutual destruction.

"I was one of those. I have thought and acted as I had to; I destroyed people whom I was fond of, and gave power to others I did not like. History put me where I stood; I have exhausted the credit which she accorded me; if I was right I have nothing to repent of; if wrong, I will pay.

"But how can the present decide what will be judged truth in the future? We are doing the work of prophets without their gift. We replaced vision by logical deduction; but although we all started from the same point of departure, we came to divergent results. Proof disproved proof, and finally we had to recur to faith - to axiomatic faith in the rightness of one's own reasoning. That is the crucial point.

"We have thrown all ballast overboard; only one anchor holds us: faith in one's self. Geometry is the purest realization of human reason; but Euclid's axioms cannot be proved. He who does not believe in them sees the whole building crash.

"No. 1 has faith in himself, tough, slow, sullen and unshakable. He has the most solid anchor-chain of all. Mine has worn thin in the last few years. ... "The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost."
This argument is not fiction. It was exactly the worldview of the Communist Party leadership. Gramsci, channelling Machiavelli, argued that the Party was the Modern Prince.


Why this argument? Why now?

1. Ideological Stalinism has made an unlamented departure, but as long as there are losers in society there will be ideological leftists with a vision, a strategy and a lack of scruples.

2. Rubashov describes ideologically-driven revolutionary change in general, not limited to Stalinism: "We introduced neo-Machiavellism into this country, the others, the counter-revolutionary dictatorships, have clumsily imitated it."

Radical Islam was not on the radar in 1940 but fits all the technical criteria of totalitarianism.

3. And finally, as a matter of practicality, how could you bring about decisive transformational change without a philosophy like this?


  1. Interesting articles, on the last question do we have (at least) two possible ways of interpreting it:

    (1) In a Star Trek situation in which one encounters a peasant-serf civilisation, like 1900s Russia, what is the best way to proceed to get it to (say) 1950s industrial level with "reasonable" levels of equality and fairness; or

    (2) How do we get a society like ours to the next stage:

    Current == influential global corporations with over paid CEOs and the increasing likelihood of a largely automated future (no more car driving!) probably to be run in the interests of the present elite vs.
    Alternative Future == ?

    1. (1) That was the Bukharin-Stalin debate of 1928. At the end of the day you have to do primitive accumulation .. and someone has to pay.

      (2) Yes, I have so many posts on this topic - all speculative! A Marxist would say that provided the masses remain undefeated and productivity rises are not too difficult (with effective AI), then transfers of the resulting social surplus product will occur, possibly (and hopefully) with a modicum of political conflict.


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