Jesse Myerson feels obliged to tell Americans that everything they know about communism is wrong. I am not one of the ardent capitalists who populate the talk shows and financial pages of that country. It is, for me, the best system that man has yet devised for large populations – a claim that might inspire guffaws until it is remembered that the same logic is used to vindicate democracy (an idea, indeed, that has had more successful competitors). If people would like to devise alternatives I would be intrigued to see them. Each time someone tries to breathe life into this idea, though, it looks like an attempt to resuscitate a corpse.
Myerson reminds us that capitalist states can be responsible for grave crimes. They can indeed. While they have had successes, though, in terms of human enrichment and liberation, communist states have had a record of nigh on complete failure. Myerson offers no real achievements to support them but instead attempts to minimise their awfulness. He takes on the claim that communists killed a hundred million people “for resisting dispossession” by observing that Stalin killed thousands of communists as well as kulaks, and that millions of Mao’s victims died of hunger, not in violence. True, Mr Myerson, victims of communist states were not all resisting dispossession. Stalin’s one-time allies perished because if small groups of men seize power in unstable states they tend to start eliminating threats to themselves, while the Chinese starved because of catastrophic mismanagement. You would think that the implications for central planning and the dictatorship of the proletariat would hurt rather help Myerson’s cause. Indeed, you would be right.
What interests me is the passage about human flourishing. Myerson writes that capitalist states inspire conformity as well as individualism. True. It vexes me how people are entranced by mass media and product acquisition. On the other hand, I think conformism is an inevitable human characteristic – and, indeed, an essential one in some of its forms. While I believe in defying consumerist trends with values and ideas I do not see how to replace them.
Our author feels otherwise. He writes that “most of the greatest art under capitalism has always come from people who are oppressed” and cites “the blues, jazz, rock & roll, and hip-hop”. I like jazz, and even the occasional rap, but the idea that this is our “greatest art” is odd. Does he admire blues licks more than symphonies? Really? (And this is the guy who holds to the key to our enlightenment?) Great art has emerged from oppressed people, though while these have included men under capitalism, like Dostoyevsky, they have often endured communist states, like Bulgakov, Pasternak, Grossman and Solzhenitsyn. I suspect, however, that most of our greatest art has come from the offspring of the rich, like Tolstoy and Proust, or men blessed by their patronage, such as Mozart, Bach, Shakespeare and Rembrandt.
Myerson confronts the argument that communism breeds conformity by rhapsodising about a utopia in which we shall be free, as Marx phrased it, to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner”. How we might achieve this state is a question that he does not even try to answer. He observes that great artists have cleaved to the ideas of Marx and offers this as evidence that “the production of culture in such a society would breed tremendous individuality”. I cannot help but note that these artists tend to have made achievements outside communist states. Tremendous art existed behind the iron curtain but it tended to be dissident.
Myerson gripes that “people are unable to distinguish equality from homogeneity”. The trouble is that the attempt to force equality on the unequal obliges one to suppress the exceptional talent that creates and inspires mental and material invention – either by neglect or by outright force. This is one of many sins that are inherent to dogma that depends on the denial of human realities – a dependence that its advocates have shown no sign of breaking.