Good Intentions? Really?

There's been an interesting discussion on other blogs about the acceptance of communist chic. Says Jim Henley:

America kicked the Nazis’ ass too, though, so what about that, huh?? you might say. Count me among those who believe that the Soviets were awful - I’m glad they’re dead - but that the Holocaust was sui generis. Uniquely awful, not in terms of body count but in terms of intention. Nazi Germany earnestly intended to pursue every last Jew on Earth and murder them. Even the Turks were content to allow any Armenians who actually made it out of Turkey to get on with their lives somewhere else.

(bold mine, italics his)

Julian Sanchez says, among other things:

I think Jim's right that the unique reaction to the Nazi case has to do with a special horror at the intentions of that regime: Soviet communism, one might say, turned out to be massively murderous, while the extermination of an entire group of people was a core goal of Nazi ideology.

I have to be honest. I'm surprised at these statements. I agree with Glen Whitman who says,

This rationalization doesn’t quite work for me. Maybe it would have worked as an excuse in 1945. But in 2007, anyone who doesn’t understand that communism is murderous and brutal is either willfully blind or woefully ignorant.

Quite a few people believe that particular communist myth: a bunch of people got together and tried to "implement a system" to better their lives, but as it turns out, the results weren't quite what they expected.

That's plain wrong. Communism was certainly supported by some based on ideals of "brotherhood" and "sharing". But a large part of it was also based on hatred. It gave people an excuse to hate people different than them. Lenin said in response to peasant farmers refusing to sell food to the state at subsistence prices,

These leeches have drunk the blood of toilers, growing richer the more the workers starved in the cities and factories. The vampires have gathered and continue to gather in their hands the lands of landlords, enslaving, time and time again, the poor peasants. Merciless war against these kulaks! Death to them!

The Nazis hated based on race; the communists hated based on class. The Nazis believed that the wealthy Jews were to blame for their ills; the communists believed that the wealthy were to blame for their ills.The Nazis tried to exterminate Jews; the communists tried to exterminate kulaks, Ukranians, and all sorts of ethnic minorities. Most historians believe Stalin was on the verge of a Jewish cleansing before his death.

The myth of "good intentions" was eloquently answered by Bryan Caplan a couple of years ago on this blog. I quote at length:

In any case, this argument is too subtle to explain why the world judges Communism less harshly than Nazism. In my judgment, the main reason for the double standard is that, even today, people believe that the Communists had better intentions than the Nazis. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of this position comes from Joseph Davies, the pro-Stalin U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R.:

Both Germany and Soviet Russia are totalitarian states. Both are realistic. Both are strong and ruthless in their methods. There is one distinction, however, and that is as clear as black and white. It can be simply illustrated. If Marx, Lenin, or Stalin had been firmly grounded in the Christian faith, either Catholic or Protestant, and if by reason of that fact this communistic experiment in Russia had been projected upon this basis, it would probably be declared to be one of the greatest efforts of Christian altruism in history to translate the ideals of brotherhood and charity as preached in the gospel of Christ into a government of men… That is the difference - the communistic Soviet state could function with the Christian religion in its basic purpose to serve the brotherhood of man. It would be impossible for the Nazi state to do so.(Journal entry, July 7, 1941)

But while the argument from good intentions is probably the main reason why people think that Communism was better than Nazism, the argument is at best half-baked. The Nazis dreamed of “perfect brotherhood” too - an Aryan utopia. Even in his Final Political Testament, Hitler placed “every single person under an obligation to serve the common interest and to subordinate his own advantage to this end.” And both Nazis and Communists had the same basic road map to perfect brotherhood: killing everyone unfit to be their brothers.

In short, both ideologies began with the creepy demand that human beings stop being the diverse, self-interested animals that we are, and eagerly jumped to the conclusion that a bloodbath was in order. How could their intentions be any more comparable - or any worse?

Perhaps the parallel is hard to see precisely because, even in the West, anti-capitalist propaganda has successfully dehumanized the bourgeoisie, landlords, money-lenders, and “the rich.” So when we hear Communists chant “Death to the bourgeoisie,” we don’t feel the same way we do when we hear Nazis chant “Death to the Jews.”

What is worth remembering every May Day, then, is that the people murdered by the Communists were, by and large, as blameless as the farmer who grows your food, the banker who lends you money, or the landlord who rents your apartment. Like the Jews of Europe, they were scapegoats - and anyone who genuinely had good intentions could have seen it at the time.

Human nature, being what it is, makes it difficult for most people to willfully kill another human being. When mass murder on the scale of what happened in the Soviet Union occurs, the basic traits of empathy and compassion have to be overcome. The dehumanization of certain groups of people that communist philosophy inspired was vital for this to happen. It's naive to believe that communism was merely a failed attempt to implement a different way of doing things or that its intentions were good.

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People usually think they are good

When people aggress against innocents, they will often claim, and honestly believe, that their victims are the true aggressors, the true initiators of force, and that they themselves are fighting a defensive fight against aggressors - against oppressors.

The Nazis felt this way about the Jews, just as the communists felt this way about the bourgeoisie, the kulaks, and their other victims.

If we are to define "good intentions" subjectively, as a matter of how the person himself perceives the world and his relationship with it, then the communists had good intentions. But the Nazis also had good intentions by that same subjective definition. Both the communists and the Nazis perceived themselves to be defending an oppressed group against an oppressor - a powerful and relentless oppressor, in fact, who therefore must be opposed forcefully and to the bitter end, because the sinister power has left the righteous warrior no other choice.

Any judgment of good versus evil therefore must not be crudely based on a person's subjective view of the world - for if it were, then Nazis and communists would have to be accepted as merely misguided but otherwise good people, heroes for having killed so many perceived enemies.

We do, of course, take subjective perception into account, but we do so with some care. A person who killed an innocent man can be acquitted of murder if it is convincingly argued that a reasonable person in his position would have perceived the victim of the killing to be a mortal threat. This concerns the subjective perception of a reasonable person.

The key here I think is the concept of the reasonable person. Communists believed that capitalists were oppressors, and Nazis believed that Jews were oppressors, but (and this is key) these were not reasonable beliefs - not beliefs that a reasonable person would hold. The ideas set forth by Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler in their respective books which were about what was going on in the world and about who was responsible for the misery of whom, were not reasonable ideas. They were, in fact, crackpot ideas.

In the words of

In the words of Jean-François Revel: "Communism is nazism plus lying." Or as I recently read: "Communism is a nazism that did not have its Nuremberg Trials."

Commies vs Nazis

Or as the leftists at my alma malus so often put it: "yeah but the Communists mean well." When I explained that NAZI was an acronym and what it stood for; it didn't seem to alter their view.

well, there are good reasons in that case

You can't just take the the bait that leaders use to mask their evil intentions and assume that the bait = the real behavior. Does this (backed up by tons of rhetoric too) mean that Stalinism= democracy?

Not just bait

Read Mein Kampf: Hitler really thought he was working for the good of the working classes. Well, a very specific working class: the German working class.

It's fun to argue that National Socialist German Workers Party was intended to mislead; it is usually based on the mistaken notion that since Hitler hated communists, he must have hated socialism and loved capitalism. He didn't: when he is referring in MK to socialism as a philosophy, it is always lovingly, but he always refers to communists, Social Democrats, and capitalists disparagingly (he apparently -- and remarkably -- believed both were the work of Jews). It is also usually based on the idea that Socialism == Marxism, but that isn't true, either. And the that Marxism and antisemitism are mutually exclusive; they aren't (Marx certainly had his problems). And that socialists cannot be eugenicists; Shaw certainly was. All of these misconceptions were, I believe, an unfortunate residue of the propaganda that drove us through WWII and then the Cold War.

Mussolini was born and bred socialist, and in fact became a high ranking member of the party. I submit that was no accidental part of the creation of his later philosophy.

Intention fuzziness

Intention is a deliberately fuzzy term -- everyone tries to claim, in one context or another, "I intended to swing my fist, but not to hit your face with it."

Intention is nothing more than the forseeable results of freely-chosen actions. If a reasonably intelligent person would see that if you do A, B will result, then a person voluntarily doing A either

(1) Directly intends B, or
(2) Remains deliberately in ignorance of A's nature, which is to say intends an unknown large set of consequences including B, thus intending B, or
(3) Is an idiot acting semi-randomly, a situation from which B also clearly might follow, and so intends B.

"Unintended consequences" are rare indeed -- what goes by that name is generally the intended consequences of deliberate blindness to one's own intentions and actions and consequences.

The Doctrine of Good Intentions

Good Post. Incidentally, rarely do I hear the "doctrine of good intentions" invoked more than in discussions of US policy and Israeli policy. When Israel kills triple the number of Palestinians, that's acceptable because the Palestinians are intending to kill civilians, while the far more numerous deaths on the other side are all accidental.
Nevertheless, it's not as simple as just counting corpses (as we all know, of course.)

Communism is implicit in democracy

There is no moral justification for democracy if people don't collectively own everything. So communism is democracy taken to it's logical conclusion. That makes it difficult to hate for anyone who endorses democracy. And democracy is widely endorsed.

Most people can divorce the principles of Nazism from their own politics, not so with communism. They are reluctant to see communism judged as harshly because they are collaborating in a form of it.

okay

but is democracy implicit in Communism? And we should probably go with Stalinism, just so you don't answer the wrong question again.

They are reluctant to see communism judged as harshly because they are collaborating in a form of it.

I find this pretty unrealistic. Remember you're talking about motivations; do you really think that people who oppose Stalin are secretly self-identifiying with him? I think that's ludicrous... Is your opposition to Lenin is tempered because he considered advocated State Capitalism?

If you know anything about the left, you'll know that we have no problem hating someone one inch away from us politically with a fervent passion.

I actually agree with much of what you are implying about democracy, though I would throw some massive quotation marks around the word "communism." Communism as brought forward into the world (Russia, China, etc.) is not implied by democracy at all. A stateless, somewhat equal society, free society probably is. While I personally don't think that communism has much to do with that (i.e. whatever the great ideas of theoretical communism they are inextricably bound to ideas like the "vanguard party" and "Dictatorship of the proletariat" which means they will always fail.)

 

 

One might also add that the

One might also add that the reason people are so woefully ignorant of Soviet Communism's actual character is that so many intellectuals (in the broad Hayekian "opinion-shaper" sense) were supporters of it, and actually owning up to how morally grotesque it was would have required an amount of serious soul-searching that very few of them were inclined to do.

intellectuals

Many of these intellectuals are now on the right-wing if that tells you anything (Hitchens, Horowtitz, etc.). It's remarkable how easy one can make the transition from a power-worshipper using leftist rhetoric to one using right-wing-rhetoric.

I really don't understand

I really don't understand the confusion. Americans think less of the Nazis than the Communists because America had tens of thousands of Nazi survivors move to America, while American Communist survivors were generally few. Holocaust survivors form an important part of American Judaism, and Jewish Americans play a large role in mass media. Their suffering, and what they've shared with us about their horrors, has made it into mainstream American thought.

By contrast, 10,000 Cossacks or Armenians didn't move to America and become a prominent part of American mass media. Hence, their stories and their horrors are untold, largely even unknown.

This isn't a Jewish conspiracy theory or anything. It's just a note that Holocaust survivors have relatives, friends, and close religious brethren in the commanding heights of American mass media. The victims of other totalitarian ideologies don't.

- Josh

Not so Fast

The difference between racial hatred and class hatred is that the former is based on involuntary and morally neutral characteristics, whereas the latter may reflect legitimate negative judgment of individual behavior. There is a broad libertarian tradition of theories that treat economic exploitation as the result of state privilege, and condemn wealth attained by "the political means." The Marxist-Leninists clearly based their class hatred on a theory of guilt resulting from exploitative behavior. Whether they were factually correct in assessing this guilt in particular cases, or proportionate in their response (they clearly were not, notably in the case of kulaks), is a side issue. Class hatred is not morally equivalent to race hatred.

So Sanchez has it essentially right: class hatred, as reflected in the Communist regimes, was a perversion of a potentially just value; the race hatred of the Nazis was an inherently unjust value in and of itself.

Re: Not so fast

The difference between racial hatred and class
hatred is that the former is based on involuntary and morally neutral
characteristics, whereas the latter may reflect legitimate negative
judgment of individual behavior.

That is not a proper contrast. "A does not while B may" is logically compatible with "A does not while B also does not." The word "may" is compatible with "not", because a statement about what "may" be is merely a statement about the writer's own incomplete knowledge. But the rightness or wrongness of the communists is not a function of anyone's incomplete knowledge about them.

The Nazis, as is well known, condemned Jews for their supposed behavior. And much of this supposed behavior was itself not truly evil or harmful but was in fact innocent behavior merely considered to be so by the Nazis - and similarly, Communists condemned innocent behavior. The Jews were in part condemned for the same behavior that Communists condemn the bourgeoisie for. The similarity of Nazism and Communism on this front is something that would no doubt distress both the Nazis (who condemned the Communists, associating the Communists with their scapegoat, the Jews) and the Communists (who condemned the Nazis, associating the Nazis with their scapegoat, the bourgeoisie), but is nonetheless real.

There is a broad libertarian tradition
of theories that treat economic exploitation as the result of state
privilege, and condemn wealth attained by "the political means." The
Marxist-Leninists clearly based their class hatred on a theory of guilt
resulting from exploitative behavior. Whether they were factually
correct in assessing this guilt in particular cases, or proportionate
in their response (they clearly were not, notably in the case of
kulaks), is a side issue.

I would not call the murder of millions a side issue in a discussion of morality, but let us set it aside anyway. Marxism-Leninism fails not only in fact, but in theory. This point need hardly be supported with arguments unless I am addressing a Communist. The theory is false and this false theory justifies the use of force against innocents. The theory is therefore evil; if not, then what exactly would make a theory evil?

Class hatred is not morally equivalent to
race hatred.

That statement is too vague to be meaningful. You can make anything into a class. The class of rapists is a class. We all hate the class of rapists, rightly so. Jews also form a class. Anything can form a class. Rocks heavier than two pounds form a class.

The same point applies if you want to restrict "class" to "social class". It is still too vague to be meaningful. There are many social classes that are entirely innocent, and therefore whether a particular class hatred is evil either depends on what class it is (if there is at least one social class that is evil) or else it does not and class hatred is always evil.

Once we get down to the specifics of who the Communists hate (and attack and kill) and why, then the communists are indeed evil because of specifically who they hate (and attack and kill) and why.

So Sanchez has it essentially right: class hatred, as reflected in
the Communist regimes, was a perversion of a potentially just value;
the race hatred of the Nazis was an inherently unjust value in and of
itself.

The word "potentially" is logically similar to the word "may", and plays a similar obfuscatory role here by finding a sufficiently broad level of abstraction from which to view the Communists with details obscured, thus excusing the inexcusable. We can do the same thing for any crime. If someone cooks and eats another human being, we can characterize this as cooking and eating an organism. Well, a lot of people cook and eat organisms! Even vegetarians cook and eat vegetable organisms. So cannibalism is merely the perversion of a potentially innocent act rather than being inherently evil in and of itself. See how easy that exculpatory game is to play. And how unconvincing.