August 27th, 2010

Arthur Koestler: on heeding warnings

Arthur Koestler had his flaws, including a long devotion to Socialism. But, like his good friend Orwell (who shared that trait), he was a fierce opponent of Communism Soviet-style, having almost been burned in its fierce annihilative furnace early on.

He was also a tireless anti-Nazi. The following is what he had to say about that latter effort, and how hard it is to get people’s attention when it counts. The excerpts are from an essay Koestler wrote in 1944 entitled, “On Disbelieving Atrocities,” which appeared in his collection The Yogi and the Commissar (I’ve changed some of the paragraphing to make it easier to read):

There is a dream which keeps coming back to me at almost regular intervals; it is dark, and I am being murdered in some kind of thicket or brushwood; there is a busy road at no more than ten yards distance; I scream for help but nobody hears me, the crowd walks past, laughing and chatting.

I know that a great many people share, with individual variations, the same type of dream. I have quarrelled about it with analysts and I believe it to be an archtype in the Jungian sense: an expression of the individual’s ultimate loneliness when faced with death and cosmic violence; and his inability to communicate the unique horror of his experience. I further believe that it is the root of the ineffectiveness of our atrocity propaganda.

For, after all, you are the crowd who walk past laughing on the road; and there are a few of us, escaped victims or eyewitnesses of the things which happen in the thicket and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theatres and cinemas.

Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute. I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces, a faint glassy stare entering your eye, and I tell myself: now you have got them, now hold them, hold them, so that they will remain awake. But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourself like puppies who have got their fur wet; then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on, protected by the dream barrier which stifles all sound.

We, the screamers, have been at it now for about ten years. We started on the night when the epileptic van der Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament; we said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing, by hot steam, mass-electrocution and live burial [Koestler seems to have been unaware of the gassing method that had come to be used most often by that time] of the total Jewish population of Europe.

So far three million have died. It is the greatest mass-killing in recorded history; and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worth while. The facts have been published in pamphlets, White Books, newspapers, magazines and what not. But the other day I met one of the best-known American journalists over here. he told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believed that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it.

As to this country [Koestler was referring to Britain, where he was living at the time and writing for the war effort], I have been lecturing now for three years to the troops, and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps, they don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass-graves of Poland; they have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belsen; you can convince them for an hour, they they shake themselves, their mental self-defence begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.

Clearly all this is becoming a mania with me and my like. Clearly we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas you others are healthy and normal. But the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a phantasy world. So, perhaps, it is the other way round: perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened phantasy world because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were it not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your day-dreaming eyes would be alive.

Why is it so difficult to hear the screaming? Much of it is self-protective: if we paid attention to all the pain and suffering in the world, we’d be paralyzed by empathy and unable to enjoy our own lives. What’s more, there’s often a sense of powerlessness to change things. To intervene effectively in time—because an ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a ton of cure—would require an understanding and prescience that seems beyond the ability of most people. Unfortunately.

[NOTE: This passage explains why it was that Eisenhower insisted the death camps be photographed, and that the films and photos be shown to the German people and to the world. He knew that otherwise, the terrible facts would not be believed. And, of course, Holocaust denial has become a popular and growing industry, anyway.]

[ADDENDUM: The full Koestler essay originally appeared in January of 1944 in the NY Times Magazine.]

41 Responses to “Arthur Koestler: on heeding warnings”

  1. Gloria Says:

    “…the crowd walks past, laughing and chatting.” The crowd is the journalists. When the journalists refuse to do their job, then ordinary people, of course, do not learn the truth–particularly in the eras before the internet.

    We had screamers just a few months ago. The journalists ignored what was going on in Iran.

    Muslim women suffer honor-killings in the U.S. and Canada–scores of these occur each year. The journalists are silent.

    Koestler was wrong in blaming ordinary people for their denial of reality. Most of us cannot know what is really going on in the rest of the world if journalists don’t tell us the truth. But truth-telling is not glamorous, doesn’t give the journalist more money, and is hard.

  2. chuck Says:

    I suspect all the atrocity stories from WWI also led to the “it’s all propaganda” response. That was, I believe, the sophisticated take on things by the time WWII rolled along. I’ll admit that I still don’t know the truth or falsehood of the WWI stories. I’m inclined to say they were false, but that is because that is what I was taught. I don’t know of any definitive source on the topic.

    Anyway, perhaps the best approach is Orwell’s, i.e., that all atrocity stories are true because atrocity in war is the common thing. But somehow I feel that that solution, while fitting with my own take on human nature, is perhaps too radical.

  3. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    One of the WWI propaganda pieces was the claim that Hun troops where busy bayonetting Belgian babies.

  4. Occam's Beard Says:

    Semi-OT: Koestler was a socialist, but opposed the Nazis? C’mon, Arthur, try to keep up: the Nazis were socialists, just socialists who had their movement hijacked by a lunatic (Pol Pot call your office).

    The point, of course, is that putting the state’s aggrandizement before the rights of the individual concentrates too much power in the government, making it a) attractive to the power-mad, and b) prone to excesses because there is no equally powerful countervailing force to keep the government in check.

    People viewing Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, etc. as aberrations annoy me no end, as do those saying socialism/ communism will work this time because the “right people” will run it. Any system will work if the right people run it. Dictatorship would be ideal if we always had the right people as dictator. The preeminence of the state leads to totalitarianism as surely as night follows day.

  5. rickl Says:

    I’m reminded of some things Artfldgr has said. To paraphrase: Most normal, decent, compassionate people simply cannot conceive of people who deliberately inflict pain and suffering. So they have a hard time believing such stories.

    Koestler’s account also suggests that the phenomenon of Holocaust denial isn’t just confined to the Holocaust. It’s the default position of the majority of people, unless confronted with incontrovertible evidence. As Neo said, Eisenhower apparently understood this on some level.

  6. jon baker Says:

    rickl said : “Koestler’s account also suggests that the phenomenon of Holocaust denial isn’t just confined to the Holocaust. It’s the default position of the majority of people, unless confronted with incontrovertible evidence.”

    Then the average person is ignorant of even basic history. Ever notice how many people refer to the Crusades but seem to not have a clue about muslim expansion both before and after the crusades?

  7. Artfldgr Says:

    Anyway, perhaps the best approach is Orwell’s, i.e., that all atrocity stories are true

    Winter Soldier wasnt true..

    up until 1990 Katyn was not admitted to

    The story of AIDs coming from a US lab isn’t true

    and on and on

    its a war of trust, belief and betrayal and forceful imposition.

    life is in the balance and most are not awake enough to value their life. you can see it by how much time they spend on diversion and then wonder why they have “missed the starting gun” later.

  8. Mr. Frank Says:

    Eisenhower was one of those not very bright Republican presidents (SARC Off).

  9. rickl Says:

    As for WWI atrocities, in August 1914 the German army marched through Belgium on their way to France. Stories of atrocities spread rapidly, and were picked up and used by the Allies as propaganda to demonstrate the Germans’ bestiality. I remember seeing a poster depicting Belgium as an innocent maiden being violated by The Hun.

    I recently read an excellent book, The Marne, 1914, by Holger H. Herwig, published in 2009. The definitive history of the Marne in English was written back in the 1930s, but Herwig had access to German military records that were unavailable until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

    The invading German troops in 1914 were apparently paranoid about Belgian civilians shooting at them (imagine that, they actually tried to defend their homeland against a foreign invader), and they rounded up and summarily executed hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. There were enough accounts like this that Herwig takes them seriously.

    Now, some of the more lurid stories of bayonetting babies and raping nuns might have been embellished, yet history is replete with such stories. I’ve read accounts of Vikings tossing babies in the air and catching them with their swords. And victorious armies have raped the women of conquered peoples from time immemorial. Whether the Germans did that in 1914 is questionable, but the Japanese Army certainly did do all that and worse a couple of decades later in Nanking.

  10. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: of course, Koestler and Orwell were contradictory in their anti-Communist, anti-Nazi, but pro-Socialist stance. They persisted in thinking that there could somehow be a kinder gentler socialism that avoided tyranny. The dream dies very very hard.

  11. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    The overarching question here—and one that has fascinated me—is how do you know the truth (assuming that you can ever know the truth), in the sense of which one do you pick and choose from among the general “stories “ about the world, and what its essence is, what it is really like, and how it runs?

    The “stories” are things like–the world is, in general, a good place, or the world is, in general, a bad place, or the world is truly a “vale of tears,” only briefly relieved by short moments of peace and happiness, or the world is a mixture of some or all these things, or the world is, in general, “knowable,” or the world is basically unknowable–it is a mystery, or the world is basically a random concatenation of events, or that people are intrinsically “good” or intrinsically “evil,” or that they are a combination of both—and whichever basic story or stories you pick, which forms the basis for your understanding of and orientation to the world and your actions in the world depends, it seems to me, on; your basic personality type, on your experiences, on what might be called your “station in life,” and, very critically, on the information you receive, and what your criteria is for “normality” and “believability,” that is created and calibrated by these key elements.

    And if that information is corrupted or biased in a certain way, or filtered so that you only receive certain information, but not other information, hear certain viewpoints and not others, and if your criteria for “normality” and “believability” have been manipulated as well—say by things like “defining deviancy down”–then how can an individual ever hope to acquire even a reasonably accurate view of “the world?”

    Substituting their view of the world for the real world is what the Left has been attempting to do for many decades now, and today, given our traitorous MSM, it is as if we have been fed something like the equivalent of LSD or had a “rufie” slipped into our drink, and we are disoriented, thinking that what we see is reality, when in fact it is largely false, and we have to ignore the reality we think we see and know, the false world created by the MSM, and go out and dig up the actual truth for ourselves; rather an enormous undertaking.

    Thomas Jefferson is often pointed out as a great champion of newspapers as an important check on the government, and as an absolutely essential source of news for citizens in a Republic such as ours,, but here are a few pointed Thomas Jefferson quotes on newspapers that you will not often see mentioned:

    “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. ME 11:224

    “I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. ME 14:46

  12. Artfldgr Says:

    Like a sketch made up of hundreds of very light lines on the paper, the truth is the dark line that becomes the drawing, the rest is shading, or removed…

  13. SteveH Says:

    “” how do you know the truth (assuming that you can ever know the truth), in the sense of which one do you pick and choose from among the general “stories “ about the world, and what its essence is, what it is really like, and how it runs?””

    We have to look at the track record, character and reputation of who is purporting this truth. I believe i get a decent grasp of the world in doing just that.

    I knew from sources i trusted 19 months ago Obama would be an over the top radical and the economy would be in the doldrums today. Which means all those predicting Obama to be good for America and the economy would be humming along right now are simply further discredited. Works for me.

  14. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    chuck, I was going there even before I read your comment. As others have noted, at least some of the German atrocities in WWI turned out to be true.

    GK Chesterton, writing immediately after WWI, noted that many people still dismissed the stories as propaganda. He predicted that in the next war with Germany (which he thought inevitable), atrocity stories would be disbelieved, with WWI atrocities used at the reasoning, even though the stories were true. He further speculated that to disbelieve such stories provided a ready reason not to do anything about them. If one believes, then one has to act.

    Elie Wiesel describes Moishe the Beadle returning to Sighet and trying to warn the Jews there, describing the camps. He was disbelieved, and they did nothing.

    If they weren’t so outrageously expensive, we really should have more wars. Of course, that would change us as a people, not for the better.

  15. david foster Says:

    Here’s another Koestler quote. This is from his 1950 novel The Age of Longing, in which Europe faces Soviet invasion. In this passage, a senior French security official is asked by a young American woman why so many people are in denial about the forthcoming attack.

    No, Mademoiselle, don’t be misled by appearances. France and what else is left of Europe may look like a huge dormitory to you, but I assure you nobody in it is really asleep. Have you ever spent a night in a mental ward? During the Occupation, a doctor who belonged to our group got me into one when the police were after me. It was a ward of more or less hopeless cases, most of whom were marked down for drastic neurosurgical operations. When the male nurse made his round, I thought everybody was asleep. Later I found out that they were only pretending, and that everybody was busy, behind closed eyes, trying to cope after his own fashion with what was coming to him. Some were pursuing their delusions with a happy smile, like our famous Pontieux (a philosopher modelled on Sartre–ed). Others were working on their pathetic plans of escape, naively hoping that with a little dissimulation, or bribery, or self-abasement, they could get around the tough male nurses, the locked doors, the operating table. Others were busy explaining to themselves that it wouldn’t hurt, and that to have holes drilled into one’s skull and parts of one’s brain taken out was the nicest thing that could happen to one. And still, others, the quiet schizos who were the majority, almost succeeded in making themselves believe that nothing would happen, that it was all a matter of exaggerated rumours, and that tomorrow would be like yesterday. These looked as if they were really asleep. Only an occasional nervous twitch of their lips or eyes betrayed the strain of disbelieving what they knew to be inevitable…No, Mademoiselle nobody was really asleep.

  16. Tom Says:

    It is quite disenheartening to read Koestler 50 years later and realize that the only thing changed in a half-century is we as a people have not changed one iota for the better. We have instead lost even more ground. Dammit, it’s hard not to be bitter, disillusioned, cynical.

    I heard Michael Gerson, a formwe GWB advisor, on Fox tonight (while peeling shrimp, so I couldn’t read). He has learned zip, nada, and sounds like a Leftist: We gotta pander to the Hispanoids, or the GOP becomes a “singularity”. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and that’s a lot.

  17. Tom Says:

    Thank you again, David F, for getting me to Haffner.

  18. david foster Says:

    Tom F…you are very welcome!

    I also think that the Koestler book from which the above quote was taken is an extremely important one, shedding light on many aspects of our current situation…my review/essay is here: sleeping with the enemy.

  19. chuck Says:

    Assistant Village Idiot (AVI for short?), thanks for the link. I’m now inclined to think the atrocity stories were true. I’ve always been struck by the continuity between Kaiserine and Nazi Germany. Hitler had his areas of genius, but originality wasn’t one of them.

  20. Promethea Says:

    My day started out horribly when I clicked on an email link from a fellow neocon entitled “There are no words!!!!!” with a message to me to forward the link to my friends.

    The link showed a series of photographs of the sadistic punishment of an 8-year-old Iranian boy for stealing bread. He was having his arm crushed by a car so that he could never use his arm again. And of course he was screaming in agony.

    These photos were so shocking, but I just couldn’t forward them to my friends. My friends are moonbats. My friends are sleepwalkers. They cannot be changed. They “know” everything that they want to know.

    Koestler also wrote a book called The Sleepwalkers. I just googled it, but it’s not about the denial of evil.

  21. Tournefort Says:

    “The link showed a series of photographs of the sadistic punishment of an 8-year-old Iranian boy for stealing bread.”

    Interesting. I came across those same photos sometime earlier this decade. I printed them and still have them.

    Reminded me of Jean-Val Jean from “Les Miserables”, although more perverse.

    Equally as appalling as the agony of the little boy is that there are people standing around watching as
    the little boy suffers.

  22. Mr. Frank Says:

    The pictures of the Iranian boy having his arm run over seem to be part of some street theater stunt. In a picture not shown the boy comes out unhurt.

  23. Tatyana Says:

    I was waiting for David Foster to voice in on Koestler.

    He, and Orwell, and thousands and tens of thousands of less known other socialists, besides more illustrious ones eliminated by treacherous Stalinist “allies” during Spanish Civil War were the leftovers of vastly overlooked – and very interesting – part of idealistic Left that considered totalitarianism their enemy.

    It is said that the term itself was invented by another one of them, Victor Serge, who predicted his own death by Stalinist agents in his last book, with ice-horror precision of details. He, too, have tried in vain to warn and alarm the world…

    I wrote couple of posts about him some time ago.

    One quote, from Serge’s novel Unforgiving Years. It is about Leningrad in the years preceding WWII – and right after Stalinist purges. The word priviligentsia is Serge’s invention and a conflate of privilege and intelligentsia

    “When I came through this city four years ago, Daria thought, …the passably well-dressed crowd of privilegentsia ambled down the central prospect. Our dead shivered inside me, but the crowd was indifferent to them. it only wanted to live its own life, there was a lot of dancing…”

  24. Tatyana Says:

    Mr. Frank: I looked up your link.
    In the picture#7 the boy does not “appears unhurt”. On the contrary, he seems to be crying and on the picture his right arm is shown, but his left arm – crushed by a car’s wheel – is not.

    Have you even heard about disinformation specialists? They will find all kinds of excuses to paint your eyeglasses pink…

  25. NJartist49 Says:

    To believe the truth about the death camps, the death panels, the conspiracies of the elites, the destruction of the Republic by the elites and Obama, that Obama is, in truth, a Muslim, etc, is to stop thinking every thing is going to be fine, that you can plan for next year,s vacation at Hilton Head, and that you can plan to open a business next year because this is just a blip: the friend or brother who warns you is just a dumb-ass.

  26. Occam's Beard Says:

    Btw, prompted by nothing in particular, I just wanted to say I love this blog for its incisive, thought-provoking posts by our gracious hostess, and the intelligent, informed commentary by the regular commentators, from whom I’ve learned a great deal.

    Kudos to all, but of course especially to neo, for making this cyber-salon the #1 stop for thoughtful discussion.

  27. Mr. Frank Says:


    I should have stated that even if it was a stunt, that’s a brutal and heartless way to treat a child. Iranians also are very hard on women and homosexuuals. It’s what they do.

  28. david foster Says:

    As NJArtist points out, seeing clearly can be disruptive and even dangerous. Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

    “Today there are once more saints and villains. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. Outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Shakespeare’s characters walk among us. The villain and the saint emerge from primeval depths and by their appearannce they tear open the infernal or the divine abyss from which they come and enable us to see for a moment into mysteries of which we had never dreamed.”

    Bonhoeffer saw clearly, and it led him to the gallows.

  29. neo-neocon Says:

    For those who missed it first time around, there’s also former leftist Dos Passos, who got a wakeup call during the Spanish civil war:

  30. Bob From Virginia Says:

    Neo, Occam and everybody, I wish you all would stop using the term Socialist you mean left-wing fascist or Marxist. There are literally hundreds of definition of socialist. Israel can call itself a socialist state, as can North Korea and Great Britain, how much do they have in common? If you want to argue as an economic system this or that type of socialism failed in that environment go ahead but define. Also if you go the Durant’s The Meaning of History “socialism” in one form or another has been around for quite some time. The humanitarian laws of ancient Judaism could be called socialist. When I call Obama a fascist it is because his actions allow no other reasonable definition (I suspect the term is not widely used with regard to Obama because, as with so many other terms, overuse has cheapened its value, as well as inflammatory). I do not know how you can nail him with the term “socialist” when there are so many definitions of it.

    Also a Haffner book I ordered just arrived, thanks for letting me know about him.

    Neo et al, I think you missed a main reason people do not respond to atrocities, laziness. There usually has to be a pay off before they do respond, like self-protection in WW2 or titillation (that is, exploiting the atrocity for its entertainment value). Another reason is boredom, genocide is not that unusual, just a man-caused disaster, like an earthquake, as Ms. Homeland Security would say. While I’m at it, why has no one described 9/11 as act of genocide, but only as an act of war. Is it because we do not want to be placed in the same category as the defenseless Jews of Europe or the Tutsis of Ruwanda? A bit late late if so.

    People would rather respond to phony atrocities, like Israeli ones, in the hope that some day they to can commit some.

    Wolla Dalbo, here is another Thomas Jefferson quote on the newspapers” the only thing true in the newspapers are the advertisements”.

    BTW Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers, about the history of Astronomy is excellent. The writing and research make hard to put down. Definitely four stars on the BoV review of Books.

  31. Bob From Virginia Says:

    Here is another great book about not seeing the train headed right towards you:
    Lipstadt, Deborah E. (1986). Beyond belief: the American press and the coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-919161-0.
    Strongly recommend, especially for anyone who takes the media pundits seriously.

  32. Tatyana Says:

    when I was researching Victor Serge for my posts (sparked by reading his novel), I came across definition that is more precise than Socialist – Left Opposition. I.e., opposition to totalitarian/fascist/authoritarian statism from the Left, rather than from Conservative, traditional, Right positions.

    What do you think?

  33. Bob From Virginia Says:

    Tatyana, That strikes as a somewhat murky definition, it defines what it is against rather than what it is.

    Actually if its meaning is not precise and easy to understand, doesn’t make it a poor definition of anything? Also if I do understand its implications, it is against authoritarian government, yet all left wing authoritarian movements include the term socialist, and use it as a weapon against democratic governments, not fascist (although that is the term they use on their enemies). The term “socialist” simply has so many definitions that it can mean virtually anything, IMHO.

    Here’s a story of over use of a term, during college during the Viet-Nam war I was called a fascist pig because of my ROTC membership. I requested to be called a fascist cow as I am Jewish and try and keep some kosher laws.

  34. neo-neocon Says:

    Bob from Virginia: I read The Sleepwalkers in high school. Loved the section on Kepler.

  35. Bob From Virginia Says:

    Neo, just read what you wrote about Dos Passos and the Spanish Civil War. It makes one wonder what an objective writer will say about the 2008 election.

  36. david foster Says:

    “the only thing true in the newspapers are the advertisements”…C S Lewis observed that most people don’t believe anything in newspapers except the sports pages, that only intellectuals believed the rest of it.

  37. Occam's Beard Says:

    Neo, Occam and everybody, I wish you all would stop using the term Socialist you mean left-wing fascist or Marxist. There are literally hundreds of definition of socialist.

    Marxism and fascism are subsets of socialism (specifically the international and national versions, respectively), the philosophy that exalts the primacy of society/ the collective/ the state over the individual, and that considers good citizenship to reside in comporting oneself for the public good as opposed to one’s own good.

    There are so many definitions in large part because socialists keep trying to redefine the term to escape the stigma attaching to their previous attempts. It’s much the same as the progression “relief” to “welfare” to “AFDC,” or “socialist” to “liberal” to “progressive;” the underlying concept is odious, so when people come to realize that the new term refers to the old odious concept, those promoting that concept need to coin a new name.

    Israel can call itself a socialist state, as can North Korea and Great Britain, how much do they have in common?

    A great deal, in fact. They differ only in degree, as a cold is to influenza is to a hemorraghic fever. If Israeli or British socialists finally got pissed off enough at individuals pursuing their own self-interest instead of that of the collective (as they think individuals should), they’d institute measures to force individuals to do as they (the socialists) thought they should behave. When they realized that individuals only obeyed those measures when watched, they institute undercover (aka secret) police and informers so no one would know when he was being watched. When their policies failed (as they inevitably would), they’d blame those who didn’t go along with the program – i.e., those who were in their eyes bad citizens – and put them in gulags.

    The progression is inevitable. Any serious attempt to implement socialism leads ineluctably to secret police, informers, and gulags. Israel and Britain are, fortunately for them, a) good at heart, and b) mealy-mouthed in their socialism, talking a good game but not seriously trying to implement it. Marry socialism to a culture that doesn’t shrink from distasteful measures and you have the USSR, PRC, Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and closer to home, Jonestown.

  38. Bob From Virginia Says:

    Occam wrote “They differ only in degree, as a cold is to influenza is to a hemorraghic fever.”

    The bottom of the ocean and the top of Mt. Everest also differ only in degree. Enough degrees and one needs a new definition.

    Fascism implies one party government, I know of no definition that requires any specific economic or socio-economic system.

    I think of Marxism (a specific type of socialism) as an accidental discovery of modern times that turned out to be ideal for controlling populations by a central authority controlling the economy and welfare. In light of that I can see where you are coming from by noting a natural progression from a little central control for our own goods can lead to total control for the good of the controller’s ego (clearly Obama’s goal with Obamacare). Nonetheless societies, many in fact, have dumped the central control idea but kept the welfare programs. The progression is not inevitable, as you noted, some societies cannot even conceive of any form of government other than democracy. Also total economic control is a dictator’s dream, in reality economies can be directed, not controlled.

    See two different definitions of socialism, economic and social welfare.

  39. Occam's Beard Says:

    The bottom of the ocean and the top of Mt. Everest also differ only in degree.

    Exactly. They both represent altitudes. Absent a discontuity, they can be described with the same parameterization.

    Enough degrees and one needs a new definition.

    No. Enough degrees and one may want a new definition, but without a discontinuity, none is needed. They represent degrees on a continuum.

    Fascism implies one party government, I know of no definition that requires any specific economic or socio-economic system.

    Fascism evolved from the confluence of War Socialism in WWI Germany and Mussolini’s experience in the same war. The two influences married socialism with nationalism to produce…national socialism (as opposed to international socialism, i.e., of which Marxism is an example). The difference is that the latter looked to unify the working class across national boundaries, whereas the former sought to unify all classes within a national boundary. But both endeavored to yield control of the economy to a central authority. Put another way, what was Albert Speer’s role in the 1939-1945 timeframe? Answer: to run the German economy to maximize output of war materiel.

    I think of Marxism (a specific type of socialism) as an accidental discovery of modern times that turned out to be ideal for controlling populations by a central authority controlling the economy and welfare.

    Marxism evolved concurrently with socialism, not consecutively. Recall that Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, and hence predated, e.g., the Paris Commune by a generation. Socialism necessitates individuals pursuing the interests of the collective rather than their own. This is why socialists invariably talk of creating “New Socialist Man.” Socialism necessarily and inevitably entails controlling the economy; it’s the raison d’etre of socialism.

    Nonetheless societies, many in fact, have dumped the central control idea but kept the welfare programs.

    Hence my comment about “mealy-mouthed” socialism. Central planning is key to socialism; without it, there is no socialism. A basic tenet of socialism is that capitalism is inefficent because it lacks central planning, and instead relies on “inefficient” competition to allocate resources. Socialism without central planning of the economy is a nonsense, a contradiction in terms.

    The progression is not inevitable, as you noted, some societies cannot even conceive of any form of government other than democracy.

    Of course it is, if one is serious about implementing socialism. Individuals will not generally put the state’s interests before their own, unless coerced to do so. That is the key point. Israel and Britain babble about socialism, but don’t actually have it, nor indeed want it. North Korea and Cuba have it, but their populations don’t want it.

    Every society can conceive of a form of government other than democracy, does so on a daily basis, but thankfully generally rejects it. For now. In extremis, democracy is a luxury no society can afford. I know you’re a big fan of Israel, so let me ask you: does the IDF make its decisions democratically? Do IDF troops vote on the tactics to be employed? Of course not. Democracy is too inefficient, too messy, for exigent situations. Commanders command. Troops obey, or face the consequences.

    Now expand that principle to the nation as a whole. On a national basis, when a whole people considers (rightly or not) its existence at risk, it’s capable of anything. It was true of Germans, it was true of Turks, it is true of the Japanese, it is true of the Arabs, it is true of the British (who tied sepoy mutineers across cannon muzzles as a form of execution, and formed concentration camps during the Boer War), it is true of Americans, and yes, it is true of Israelis too. (Israelis’ hands have been stayed by world, and especially American, opinion; if the Israelis really cut up rough with the Arabs, we’d hang them out to dry, and they know it.)

    People are people, for better or worse. We all – all born of woman – are capable of scaling the greatest heights, and plumbing the lowest depths. It is foolish, and utterly ahistorical, to think otherwise.

    This is why limiting the power of government is key. Unchecked government power leads to these tragedies as surely as night follows day. Socialism – giving the government overweening power to do good, as socialists see it – necessarily and concomitantly gives government the overweening power to do evil as well.

  40. david foster Says:

    Re the importance of limiting government power: Warren Buffett suggested investing only in businesses that are simple enough to be run by an idiot, because sooner or later, they will be.

    Similarly, government should be structured such that a nation can survive being run by bad men without too much damage…because sooner or later, it will be.

  41. Tom Grey Says:

    Great post, Neo — as is so often the case.

    Rember that those against the Vietnam war are not quite willing to agree that they favored Communist victory, and Pol Pot and Killing Fields.
    Yet they oppose the US fighting more in IndoChina against communism.

    Partly laziness, partly a stupid anti-Americanism (wanting Unreal Perfection), but mostly because of a desire to be NOT responsible for the civilian deaths that would be an inevitable part of any fight.

    That’s still the case in talking about Iran — few in the US are willing to support invasion for regime change in order to stop them from getting and using a nuke.

    Privilegentsia — what a nice word. But “elite” is so much easier, and increasingly means the same thing.

    Socialism works if, and only if, it is implemented by peaceful, voluntary agreement of individuals who agree to sacrifice their own interests for that of their group.

    It fails as soon as force must be applied to punish those individuals who disagree — and of course the disagreement itself indicates the flaw about all collectivist socialisms, that some group of people must decide what is the “collective good.” And such a group of people is never able to divorce their own personal interests.

    As I wrote about voluntary socialism, I was thinking about monastaries. But it also sort of applies to corporations — one works for the benefit of the whole corporation (to the best of one’s ability), and one gets enough money (for one’s needs, or else looks elsewhere for a better job). In my job, I’m certainly working for others, under Board of Director (central) planning.

    Fascist success in the economy (who wouldn’t rather be a non-Jew in Nazi Germany than a non-Jew in Stalinist USSR?) was based on such nationalist corporatism/ socialism.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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