Archive | Communism

Ginsburg and Scalia on Foreign Constitutions

Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby has a good article today on the somewhat overwrought criticism of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for saying, in Cairo, that the US Constitution is not a good model for other countries in 2012. As Jacoby points out, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia recently actually said that “[t]he bill of rights of the former ‘evil empire,’ the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was much better than ours,” without raising any such hackles. Scalia avoided criticism in large part because he quickly added that a good constitutional text has little value if isn’t enforced. But, as Jacoby notes, Ginsburg added much the same qualification in Cairo.

Generally speaking, Ginsburg is absolutely right to suggest that the US Constitution is not an ideal model for every foreign nation. There are lots of ways in which our institutions might be inappropriate for other nations in different circumstances. For example, the US presidency concentrates enormous power in the hands of one person. That might be very dangerous in a society that has only recently emerged from dictatorship. Countries such as Switzerland have done fairly well with a plural executive. A small country that wages few wars has less need of a powerful, unitary executive than a global superpower. Similarly, the US system of federalism might not be the best model for the many societies where the main purpose of federalism is to mitigate ethnic conflict by giving minority groups subnational governments that they control. And a few provisions of the US Constitution are simply outright mistakes by the Founding Fathers that no one would want to imitate.

That said, I am much less sympathetic to Ginsburg’s specific reasons for preferring other models over the US Constitution. She would “look at the constitution of South Africa,” because it “was a deliberate attempt […]

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National Endowment for Democracy Event in Honor of Vaclav Havel

Earlier today, I skipped both the annual AALS conference and the parallel Federalist Society conference in order to attend a moving memorial for Vaclav Havel sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Czech embassy. Appropriately, most of the speakers were dissidents and human rights activists from societies with repressive governments – including Syria, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, and others. It was an impressive demonstration of the ways in which Havel inspired people all over the world. I won’t try to summarize what the speakers said (videos of some of their remarks are available here). But it was particularly interesting to hear Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa speak about how she had read Havel’s The Power of the Powerless while in prison.

I briefly summarized my own thoughts on Havel’s life and legacy here. […]

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Why North Koreans Cried for Kim Jong Il

A couple weeks ago, I criticized a CNN article that stated that North Koreans “revere” recently deceased communist dictator Kim Jong Il, without noting that those who fail to show officially mandated reverence for the “Dear Leader” are likely to face severe sanctions from the government.

To its credit, CNN went on to publish a piece by John Sifton of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division that takes a more realistic view of the reasons why North Koreans express support for their brutal government:

Since Kim Jong Il’s death was announced…., many people have marveled at the mourning scenes featured on North Korean state television, made viral on the Internet: North Koreans prostrate, weeping, hitting the ground. Many have asked whether the anguish is genuine. How could citizens mourn the passing of a totalitarian, such a gross abuser of human rights?

The answer may be found in the human rights abuses themselves.

It is a lamentable characteristic of totalitarian regimes that they often demand acts of deceit from those they oppress. Often it is a matter of simple survival. Those who hate the regime are obliged to demonstrate patriotism. To fail is to risk persecution. The only alternative is to flee, a choice made by tens of thousands of North Koreans in the past two decades.

North Korea is unambiguously a totalitarian state. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans are held under brutal conditions in remote forced labor camps called kwan-li-so. Citizens are deprived of the freedom to speak, to dissent, to assemble, to seek remedies for grievances. Perhaps worst of all, there is no freedom from fear — knowing that one can be imprisoned and tortured for minor trifles, sent to a kwan-li-so for being related to someone who displeased the state, or face a kangaroo court trial and possible public

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The 20th Anniversary of the End of the Soviet Union

In addition to being the last day of the year, today is also the twentieth anniversary of the official end of the Soviet Union, when the last Soviet government institutions shut down. Today’s quasi-authoritarian Russia is far from admirable. But, despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s lame and self-serving claims to the contrary, it is still a vast improvement over the USSR. In addition to the benefits for Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, the fall of the USSR also created important benefits for the rest of the world. I covered the many advantages of the end of the USSR in more detail in this post.

With the demise of the USSR, we were spared a regime that slaughtered millions both within and outside its borders, inflicted numerous other human rights violations, and created a threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over the entire world. Compared to that, the very real dangers of the post-Cold War world seem minor by comparison. I recognize, of course, that the USSR in the last years of Gorbachev’s reign was much less dangerous and oppressive than it had been previously. But had the regime survived, it is far from clear that Gorby’s reforms would not have been reversed. Previous episodes of Soviet liberalization in the 1920s and 1956-64 had been followed by waves of repression at home and expansionism abroad. Moreover, Gorbachev himself was not as much of a liberal democrat as he is often portrayed in the West. He used force to try to suppress the independence movement in the Baltics, and otherwise sought to preserve the Soviet regime, not end it. He was certainly much less ruthless and repressive than his predecessors. But that is judging him by a very low standard of comparison. Nonetheless, it is fortunate […]

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Do North Koreans Really “Revere” Kim Jong Il?

This otherwise reasonable CNN article about recently deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il claims that he was “revered at home” by his people, despite a negative reputation abroad:

Regarded as one of the world’s most-repressive leaders, Kim Jong Il always cut a slightly bizarre figure. His diminutive stature and characteristically bouffant hair have been parodied by some in the West….

But for the citizens of his Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim was well regarded….

Analysts say it is easy for outsiders to demonize Kim Jong Il, a dictator who spent an estimated 25% or more of his country’s gross national product on the military while many in his country went hungry.

But in North Korea, closed off from outside influences, fearful of threats from its neighbors, and subjected to decades of political socialization on top of a long tradition of a strict hierarchical system, Kim Jong Il is viewed positively by most people, said Han Park of the Center for Study of Global Issues.

“The level of reverence for Kim Jong Il in North Korea is quite underestimated by the outside,” Park said. “He is regarded by many as not only a superior leader but a decent person, a man of high morality.

How do CNN and Han Park know that North Koreans “revere” the late “Dear Leader”? It’s true, as the article notes, that many North Koreans routinely say they revere him, and recently publicly lamented his death. But any North Korean who fails to express such support for the regime (or, worse, expresses even the slightest criticism) is likely to end up in a concentration camp or worse. So such expressions of support cannot be taken at face value.

There is actually plenty of evidence suggesting that most North Koreans do not in fact support their […]

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Writings of Vaclav Havel

For readers who may be interested, many of Vaclav Havel’s writings and speeches are available for free in English translation at his official website. Havel, who passed away on Sunday, was a great writer and the leader of the anti-communist dissident movement in Czechoslovakia. In addition to such classics as The Power of the Powerless, there are lesser known works such as “Stories and Totalitarianism” (1987), which includes the following interesting discussion of economic liberty:

The history of the system I live in has demonstrated persuasively that without a plurality of economic initiatives, and of people who participate in them, without competition, without a marketplace and its institutional guarantees, an economy will stagnate and decline….

When he can no longer participate with relative autonomy in economic life, man loses some of his social and human individuality, and part of his hope of creating his own human story.

I mention this now because although the standardizing and therefore nihilizing impact of political and intellectual centralization is clear, the analogous impact of economic centralization-as one of the indirect methods of manipulating life in general-is far from being so obvious. And that is what makes it more dangerous.

Where there is no natural plurality of economic initiatives, the interplay of competing producers and their entrepreneurial ideas disappears, along with the interplay of supply and demand, the labor and commodity markets, and voluntary employer-employee relations. Gone too are the stimuli to creativity and its attendant risks, the drama of economic success and failure. Man as a producer ceases to be a participant or a creator in the economic story, and becomes an instrument. Everyone is an employee of the state, which is the one proprietor of economic truth and power. Everyone is buried in the anonymity of the collective

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Kim Jong Il Dies

In an interesting historical coincidence, brutal North Korean communist dictator Kim Jong Il has died on the same day as heroic anticommunist dissident Vaclav Havel.

Kim presided over the world’s most repressive regime, the closest ever to a real-life version of Orwell’s 1984. Even Soviet communism was relatively mild by comparison. He was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, many of them as a result of the politically-created famine of the 1990s, which he facilitated in order to reinforce the regime’s power. He was also known for various strange obsessions, such as his plan to solve North Korea’s government-created food shortages by breeding giant rabbits. This literally hare-brained scheme was cut short when the “Dear Leader” ate the first few giant rabbits imported from Germany at his birthday party.

The interesting question for the immediate future is whether the North Korean government will survive Kim’s death relatively unchanged. Kim tried to install his son as his successor, just as his father Kim Il Sung did with him. Hopefully, things will not go as the Dear Leader planned. […]

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Vaclav Havel, RIP

Today is a very sad day. Vaclav Havel has passed away. Havel was a great writer and playwright and became the leader of Czechoslovakia’s anticommunist dissident movement in the 1970s and 80s. He spent several years in communist prisons. After the fall of communism in the Velvet Revolution – to which he made a crucial contribution – Havel became the first president of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia. His book The Power of the Powerless is one of the greatest-ever works on life under communism and the dynamics of political oppression more generally. I discussed it in slightly greater detail in this post on the books that influenced me the most. One of Havel’s less-known achievements was presiding over the peaceful and efficient “Velvet Divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This was one of the least painful and most successful secessions in recent world history, with both countries benefiting from in the long run. Even though Havel wasn’t happy about the “divorce,” his leadership helped minimize its potential negative effects.

The New York Times has a detailed obituary here. A variety of tributes are pouring in from all over the world. No one could be more deserving of them than Havel.

UPDATE: In this 2009 post, I discussed Havel’s powerful critique of the UN Human Rights Council. […]

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George Orwell on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Bryan Caplan has a interesting post on George Orwell’s portrayal of democracy in his classic work Animal Farm. As Bryan notes, the initially egalitarian and democratic regime established by the animals gets subverted in large part because of political ignorance. Like Bryan, I would be interested to know more about Orwell’s view of real-world democracy. Did he believe that the problem of political ignorance could be overcome by education or some other means? Or perhaps he thought that the problem of ignorance was irremediable, but democracy was still the best form of government. Given that he remained a socialist to the end of his life, Orwell obviously could not adopt my and Bryan’s preferred solution of limiting and decentralizing government in order to mitigate the problem.

It’s also interesting to note that Orwell’s portrayal of democracy at Animal Farm was actually far more positive than the Soviet history he based the novel on. Unlike Animal Farm, the USSR was a brutal totalitarian state from the start and was never democratic. Opposition parties (including even left-wing socialist ones) were suppressed from the beginning, and there were never any free elections or any direct democracy of the kind Orwell depicts.

I’m not sure whether Orwell deviated from Soviet history on this point in order to make a statement about democracy or because he was in thrall to the view (common among anti-Stalinist Western leftists in his day) that the Soviet experiment only went awry under Stalin. His modestly favorable portrayal of Snowball – the pig who serves as an analogue to Trotsky – is compatible with the latter idea, though Snowball is not a completely positive figure in the novel. Some degree of rot is evident even in the “pre-Stalinist” era at Animal Farm, though the animals are described as […]

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Communism and the Jews

Co-blogger David Bernstein links to Polish Jewish scholar Stanislaw Krajewski’s article on the relationship between Jews and communism in Eastern Europe. As Krajewski emphasizes, this is an extremely sensitive subject. Right-wing anti-Semites have long claimed that communism was really just a “Jewish conspiracy” intended to subjugate gentiles for the Jews’ benefit.

I agree with most of Krajewski’s analysis. It cannot be denied that Jews were disproportionately represented among early Eastern European communists. Several prominent early communist leaders were Jewish, most notably Leon Trotsky. At the same time, Krajewski is also right to emphasize that the vast majority of early 20th century Jews were not communists, and that most communists were not Jewish. Overrepresentation of a group in a political movement does not prove either that the movement was “dominated” by that group or that it primarily serves that group’s interests. The idea that communist oppression was somehow Jewish in nature is belied by the record of communist regimes in countries like China, North Korea, and Cambodia, where the Jewish presence was and is miniscule.

At the same time, I am not entirely convinced by Krajewski’s claim that Jewish communists “became communists because of general social trends” rather than because of any distinctively Jewish factors. Obviously, such general trends played a role. But the overrepresentation of Jews in the movement was also caused by at least two specifically Jewish factors. First, communism disproportionately appealed to intellectuals generally. They liked its utopian nature and its seeming logical rigor. While the vast majority of Jews are not professional intellectuals, Jews are disproportionately represented in that group. Any movement that appeals to intellectuals will also tend to have a relatively high proportion of Jewish members.

Second, Jews’ status as an oppressed minority in early 20th century Eastern Europe also played a […]

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Swedish Government Apologizes to Baltic States for its Failure to Recognize Communist Crimes

The Swedish government recently apologized to its Baltic neighbors for its previous whitewashing of Communist atrocities in the region:

Sweden owes its Baltic neighbours a “debt of honour” for turning a blind eye to post-war Soviet occupation, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told his counterparts on Monday. During a ceremony in Stockholm attended by the prime ministers of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, Reinfeldt spoke of “a dark moment” in his country’s history.

“Sweden was among the first countries to recognise the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries” in 1944, he said at a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the three countries’ independence….

“For decades, Sweden did not acknowledge Baltic suffering,” the conservative prime minister said.

“I hold in my hand a Swedish school book used during the 1980s. It makes no mention at all of the destiny of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after the Second World War. Not one word,” Reinfeldt said.

“In fact, it is hard to find any reference to the fact that there had ever been any Baltic countries. This was the reality when I went to school,” the 46-year-old leader said.

“Sweden has a debt of honour to the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We owe it to ourselves — and we owe it to the Baltic peoples — to remember the past, but also to build a common future,” he added.

Soviet repression in the Baltic states went far beyond merely ending their independence. For example, they killed some 3% of Estonia’s population and imprisoned or deported several times that number. Latvia and Lithuania didn’t fare much better. The Swedish government deserves credit for recognizing its errors and striving to correct them. Unfortunately, this is just one small step towards rectifying the broader neglect of communist crimes that still persists in many […]

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The 50th Anniversary of the Erection of the Berlin Wall

Today is the 50th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall. In November 2009, I wrote a post on the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s destruction. What I said then is also appropriate to today’s less happy anniversary:

In several ways, the Wall and its collapse are fitting symbols of communism. They demonstrate several truths about that system that we would be wise not to lose sight of.

First and foremost, Cold War-era Berlin was the most visible demonstration of the superiority of capitalism and democracy over communism and dictatorship. Despite the fact that East Germany had one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet bloc, it had to build a wall to keep its people from fleeing to the capitalist West. By contrast, West Germans and other westerners were free to move to the communist world anytime they wanted. Yet only a tiny handful ever did so. Decisions to “vote with your feet” are often even better indicators of peoples’ true preferences than ballot box voting, since foot voters have better incentives to become well-informed about the alternatives before them. Even more powerful evidence is the reality that many East Germans and others fled from communism even when doing so meant risking their lives.

Second, the Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the way in which communist governments violated the human right to freedom of movement, one of the most important attributes of a free society. If people are forcibly trapped under the rule of the government in whose territory they happen to be born, they are not truly free; rather, they are hostages of their rulers.

Finally, the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vividly demonstrated the extent to which communist totalitarianism relied on coercion to maintain its rule. Some

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Yelena Bonner, RIP

Yelena Bonner, the widow of Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov, and a prominent dissident in her own right has passed away:

Yelena Bonner, a rights activist and widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, has died, her daughter said Sunday. She was 88….

Bonner grew famous through her marriage to Sakharov, the Soviet Union’s leading dissident, but she carved out her own reputation as a tireless human rights campaigner in the face of relentless hostility from Soviet authorities….

Both suffered constant harassment, and Soviet officialdom regularly made caustic, personal attacks against Bonner, accusing her of being a foreign agent who bullied her husband, the father of the Soviet atomic bomb [actually hydrogen bomb – IS], into turning against his country.

But the attacks only seemed to strengthen their resolve, and neither ever stopped calling for greater personal freedom for Soviet citizens despite the huge personal cost.,,,

After Sakharov died in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later, Bonner continued to champion human rights, but was less and less visible, and her health began to deteriorate…..

Nonetheless, she edited her husband’s memoirs, which were released in 1997, and still occasionally spoke out against President Boris Yeltsin’s government, denouncing Russia’s bungled war in Chechnya and the shortcomings of the country’s young democracy.

In recent years, Bonner lent the weight of her voice to those opposing the leadership of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who has restored many of the Soviet-era powers of the security services. In March 2010, hers was the first signature on a petition calling for Putin to go.

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Victims of Communism Day

Today is May Day. For the past several years, I have advocated that this date be transformed into Victims of Communism Day. My 2007, 2008, and 2010 posts on the subject explain the rationale for this idea. Here’s a summary from my very first post on the subject, which remains equally valid today:

May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their regimes. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes’ millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so. I suggest that May Day be turned into Victims of Communism Day….

The main alternative to May 1 is November 7, the anniversary of the communist coup in Russia. However, choosing that date might be interpreted as focusing exclusively on the Soviet Union, while ignoring the equally horrendous communist mass murders in China, Camobodia, and elsewhere. So May 1 is the best choice.

In this post, I explained why the longstanding relative neglect of communist crimes is deplorable — not just from the standpoint of understanding the past, but also that of doing justice in the here and now and ensuring a better future. For a good summary of the extent of communist crimes, see this 2005 May Day post by political scientist Rudolph […]

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The “San Francisco Democrats” meme

These days, there are innumerable books and articles which will tell you that at the 1984 Republican Convention, “San Francisco Democrats” were denounced, and that the term was understood by everyone as an attack on homosexuals. This is at most only a partial truth.

Suppose that in 2012, after the Republican Convention, a Democrat denounced the Republican Convention as consisting of “Sarah Palin Republicans.” The denunciation would bring to mind a wide variety of issues and themes. Now suppose that in 2040, a historian told you that the denunciation of “Sarah Palin Republicans” was understood by everyone as a criticism of the hunting of wolves. For some animal rights activists, Governor Palin’s greatest sin is allowing aerial wolf hunting. These activists, when they heard the phrase “Sarah Palin Republicans,” might immediately think of wolf hunting. But most people–including the audience of anti-Palin swing voters to whom the 2012 speaker was appealing–would not think first of wolves. Even if wolf hunting might happen to be among the dozens of things they loathed about Sarah Palin.

Similarly, in 1984, the term “San Francisco Democrats” raised numerous issues which were far more important to swing voters than were gay rights; this was especially so for the target audience–the voters who would become known as Reagan Democrats.

Beginning in the late 1960s, there had been an intense struggle within the Democratic party. On the one side were the heirs of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. They strongly believed in a powerful and affirmative federal government, and they were hawkish and staunchly anti-communist. This was the traditional party of Big Labor, the big city mayors, and the Democratic machine. Challenging them, as insurgents, were dovish anti-war activists, women’s rights advocates, and others on the cultural left. The overwhelming issue in the divide was the […]

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