Among the Intellectualoids

The Worst Idea in the World

Young communist Jesse Myerson recycles old red clichés.

By 2.5.14

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Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises predicted that the Soviet project was doomed to fail. In his classic work Socialism, Mises explained that the attempt to replace the market system with central economic planning could not succeed, because the planners could not possibly have the information necessary to make all the decisions which, in a market economy, are made by individuals whose needs and desires are reflected in prices: "The problem of economic calculation is the fundamental problem of Socialism."

"Everything brought forward in favour of Socialism during the last hundred years," Mises wrote in 1922, "in thousands of writings and speeches, all the blood which has been spilt by the supporters of Socialism, cannot make Socialism workable. .... Socialist writers may continue to publish books about the decay of Capitalism and the coming of the socialist millennium; they may paint the evils of Capitalism in lurid colours and contrast with them an enticing picture of the blessings of a socialist society; their writings may continue to impress the thoughtless -- but all this cannot alter the fate of the socialist idea."

Undeterred by Mises' criticism, the Soviet Union spent the next seven decades proving his prediction correct. By the time the Communist utopia collapsed in bankruptcy and disgrace, it seemed that everyone with two eyes and a brain understood the lesson: The Marxist-Leninist project was a complete failure and, as historians documented in The Black Book of Communism, tens of millions of people had died for this mistake, deliberately starved or slaughtered by totalitarian Communist governments.

The persistence of Marxist-Leninist regimes in Pyongyang and Havana notwithstanding, socialism has been utterly discredited in exactly the way Mises prophesied in 1922. Yet the ability of socialist writers "to impress the thoughtless" is remarkably undiminished, and few publications are more devoted to impressing the thoughtless than Salon.com. A fossil vestige of the paleodigital age, Salon has reportedly been losing upwards of $1.5 million a year since its inception in the mid-1990s. As I remarked in 2012, its "cumulative losses by now are probably somewhere between $20 million and a metric buttload":

At about the time Arianna [Huffington] was palming off HuffPo to AOL for $315 million ... there was some talk of selling Salon to Michael Wolff’s Newser, but negotiations reportedly broke down because nobody could figure out what Salon was worth, if anything.

Salon's resolute commitment to failure extends to the realm of failed ideas, and on Sunday it published a defense of Communism by Jesse Myerson entitled, "Why you’re wrong about communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism)."

Illustrated with photos of Karl Marx and Gordon Gekko (the latter being the villain of Oliver Stone's 1987 anti-capitalist film Wall Street), Myerson's article is a particularly tedious example of a genre familiar to anyone old enough to recall the Cold War-era style of liberal discourse known as "anti-anti-Communism."

From the 1940s onward, the Left blamed the Cold War not on Stalin's armed conquest of eastern Europe nor on the subversion and espionage fomented by the KGB and the Comintern, but rather on the opponents of Stalinism in the West. Harry Truman and Winston Churchill were bloodthirsty warmongers, according to anti-anti-Communist belief. Everything from the Marshall Plan to the execution of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was attributed by Moscow's stooges to the manipulations of capitalist plutocrats and crypto-fascist hysteria. According to anti-anti-Communists, ignorance and irrational prejudices led Americans to "misunderstand" the peaceful glories of the Soviet paradise. By a process of intellectual osmosis, pro-Soviet arguments made their way from the Daily Worker (official organ of the Communist Party USA) into the rhetoric of the leftist fringe, thence into the pages of liberal books and journals and, eventually, into the minds of leading Democrat politicians. Less than three decades after Truman fought off the CPUSA-backed challenge of "Progressive" Henry Wallace, President Jimmy Carter in 1977 expressed his pride that America had finally gotten over its "inordinate fear of communism."

At that very moment, of course, Vietnamese refugees were still fleeing that Communist regime in Hanoi, the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" nightmare in Cambodia had just passed, Soviet-backed Marxists were taking charge in Nicauragua and Angola and, two years later, those communists in Moscow sent their tanks rolling into Afghanistan. Whether American fear of communism was ever "inordinate" is subject to debate, but what is certain is that the Soviet Union was entirely deserving of the "Evil Empire" sobriquet Ronald Reagan famously bestowed upon it, and Reagan's determined opposition hastened that empire's final implosion. None of this historical truth, however, has penetrated the unusually thick skull of Jesse Myerson, a 2008 graduate of Bard College (where he double majored in Theater and Human Rights Studies) who seems to believe his elders are in need of education about our "misconceptions" of communism.

Typical of young fools who were infants or toddlers or not yet born when the Berlin Wall came down, and who have no memory at all of the hapless folly of Jimmy Carter, Myerson ignorantly repeats "arguments" which were recognized as anti-anti-Communist clichés during the Cold War. Back in the day, whenever the oppressive brutality of actual communist regimes was pointed out, American socialists would aver that what they proposed was real Marxism, an ideal which had no existing example, but which the socialist was certain could somehow be obtained. Myerson recycles this cliché by insisting that the future communism he advocates could avoid the errors of previous communist tyrannies:

For me, communism is an aspiration, not an immediately achievable state. It, like democracy and libertarianism, is utopian in that it constantly strives toward an ideal, in its case the non-ownership of everything and the treatment of everything -- including culture, people’s time, the very act of caring, and so forth -- as dignified and inherently valuable rather than as commodities that can be priced for exchange.

Given the technological, material, and social advances of the last century, we could expect an approach to communism beginning here and now to be far more open, humane, democratic, participatory and egalitarian than the Russian and Chinese attempts managed. I’d even argue it would be easier now than it was then to construct a set of social relations based on fellowship and mutual aid ...

You can read the whole thing, but be forewarned that Myerson's ideas are as murky and convoluted as his writing is dreary and repetitive. No more than any previous advocate of these ideas has Myerson transcended Mises' description of the socialist rhetorical method:

Marxism criticizes the achievements of all those who think otherwise by representing them as the venal servants of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels never tried to refute their opponents with argument. They insulted, ridiculed, derided, slandered, and traduced them, and in the use of these methods their followers are not less expert. Their polemic is directed never against the argument of the opponent, but always against his person.

More than nine decades after Mises wrote those words, it is astonishing to witness the obstinate persistence of bad arguments for communism. Of course, there were never any good arguments for communism, but there is no use trying to explain this to young fools like Jesse Myerson who insist on rooting around in the ash heap of history, attempting to revive the worst idea in the world.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.