A 1934 debate about communism among American philosophers

The appeal of Marxist socialism — communism — as an alternative to the consumerism, inequality, and exploitation of European and American capitalism was a powerful draw for many intellectuals in the 1930s, especially in the context of the great Depression and widespread crisis and deprivation of the 1930s. This interest extended to many prominent American philosophers. It is a credit to philosophy that these philosophers took on the great issues of the day and engaged seriously with them.

1934 was an especially intense time for intellectual and political debate between defenders of liberal democracy and advocates for some version of communism. The Depression was in full swing, and there was a widespread view in Britain, France, and the United States among intellectuals that capitalism was bankrupt — incapable of solving the social problems it created and confronted. On the other side, the enormous failures of Stalinist Communism were not yet as visible in the west in1934 as they would be in 1954. The Moscow Show Trials were still five years in the future, the Holodomor was not yet widely known in the west, and — at least in its propaganda image — Soviet economic planning had succeeded in transforming a backward society into a rapidly developing modern industrial economy.

A particularly interesting document from 1934 is a symposium called The Meaning of Marx (link) including contributions by Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Morris Cohen, Sidney Hook, and Sherwood Eddy. All of the contributors except Eddy are leading philosophers in the analytic and pragmatist traditions of philosophy, and their comments and reflections on communism as a social-political system are highly interesting.

Sherwood Eddy and Sidney Hook frame the symposium with articles entitled “An Introduction to the Study of Marx” (Eddy) and “The Meaning of Marx” (Hook). Dewey, Russell, and Cohen offer brief essays on the topic, “Why I am not a Communist”, and Sidney Hook has the final word with an essay called “Communism without Dogmas”. This period of debate is much more interesting and substantive than the vitriolic animosities expressed in the 1950s under the conditions of McCarthyism, because each of these authors makes a serious and sustained effort to make sense of the historical events through which they are living. (In 1937 Dewey and Hook were also actively involved in supporting Leon Trotsky against Stalin’s accusations following the Moscow show trials of 1936.)

Sherwood Eddy

Sherwood Eddy is not a familiar name, but he was a prominent Protestant educator and missionary, educated at Yale and Princeton Theological Seminary. What is striking about Eddy’s essay is the unstinting admiration he expresses for the ideology and values of Soviet Communism. Eddy’s interpretation of social change remains “religious” in a sense; he understands Communism as a unifying belief system capable of motivating the masses of the population.

Russia has achieved what has hitherto been known only at rare periods in history, the experience of almost a whole people living under a unified philosophy of life. All life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity. The new philosophy has the advantage of seeming to be simple, clear, understandable, all-embracing and practical. (2)

Further, he contrasts the ideological unity and purity of Soviet society with the degeneration of values in western capitalist society:

As surely as Soviet Russia has become united, we of the West have witnessed a philosophic decadence and disintegration. Where feudalism once united the world, capitalism has divided it by the competitive anarchy of a loose individualism. Not organized society but the insecure individual is now the unit where every man is for himself. The economics of profit conflict with the aims of culture. The gain of the few is pitted against the welfare of the many. This whole laissez-faire philosophy of life breeds competitive strife between individuals, classes, races and nations. (4)

At the end of the essay Eddy summarizes points of agreement and disagreement with Marx; most important is this point:

I. I do not believe that violent revolution is inevitable, nor do I believe that it is desirable in itself as Marx almost makes it. When once violence is adopted as a method in an inevitable and “continuing revolution,” when to Marx’s philosophy is added Lenin’s false dictum that “great problems in the lives of nations are solved only by force,” most serious consequences follow wherever communism is installed under a dictatorship or prepared for by violent methods. This shuts the gates of mercy on mankind. In Soviet Russia all prosperous farmers are counted kulaks, and the kulak becomes the personal devil or scapegoat of the system, as does the Jew in Nazi Germany. Intellectuals and engineers are all too easily accused of deliberate sabotage, of being “wreckers,” class enemies, etc. When this philosophy–that great problems are solved “only by violence”–is applied, then trials, shootings and imprisonment follow in rapid succession. Hatred and violence mean wide destructive and incalculable human suffering. (27)

Thus, though I acknowledge my real debt to Marx, I do not count myself a Marxist. I have stated elsewhere: the reasons which would make impossible my acceptance of the system as practised in Soviet Russia under the dictatorship: Its denial of political liberty, the violence and compulsion of a continuing revolution, and the dogmatic atheism and anti-religious zeal required of every member of the Communist Party. (29)

Here he draws out precisely the implication of totalitarianism contained in Stalin’s version of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The war on the kulaks — the Holodomor — was going on as this symposium took place (1933-34) (link).

Sidney Hook

Sidney Hook was a well-known philosopher, with a political commitment to radical change and a willingness to defend Communist ideas in the 1920s and early 1930s. He became anti-Communist and anti-Stalinist beginning in 1933 and broke fully from the Communist International by 1939, but remained on the left as a democratic socialist. Hook came to be regarded by some on the left as a renegade and new conservative, but Tony Judt disagrees strongly with that view:

He became an aggressively socialist critic of communism. The “aggressively socialist” is crucial. There’s nothing reactionary about Sidney Hook. There’s nothing politically right-wing about him, though he was conservative in some of his cultural tastes—like many socialists. Like Raymond Aron, he was on the opposite side of the barrier from the sixties students. He left New York University disgusted with the university’s failure to stand up to the sit-ins and occupations—that was a very Cold War liberal kind of stance. But his politics were always left of center domestically and a direct inheritance from the nineteenth-century socialist tradition. (Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 226)

So what was Hook’s position in 1934? He believed that it was valuable to distinguish between Communism (the specific version implemented after the Russian Revolution) and communism (the ideal theory implied by Marx’s writings on post-capitalist society). Hook’s goal in “The Meaning of Marx” is to express what he thinks Marx’s writings actually imply about “communism”. And he believes, even in 1934, that Stalinism was a cruel perversion of that vision of the future, but that Marx’s own conception was the correct pathway for modern people to follow.

Here is the first premise of Hook’s view:

Marxism [urges] social action which aims by the revolutionary transformation of society to introduce a classless socialist society. (33)

What is a “classless society”?

The abolition of private ownership of the social means of production spells the abolition of all economic classes. (38)

This point reflects a double-pronged theory on Marx’s part: ownership confers massive economic advantage to one group over another, and that advantage is transformed into the political power needed to sustain the class system itself against the protests of the under-class.

Hook then turns to the political implications of this socio-economic analysis of capitalism. How can the working class gain political power over the propertied class? His account has three features — militant action by the masses of workers for improved conditions, coordination with “intermediate and subordinate groups” to change the existing order, and to “destroy the myth of the impartiality of the state” in order to effectively demand social and political revolution (47).

So what about dictatorship and democracy in Marxist socialism? Hook argues that Marx’s conception involves a genuine version of democracy that is different from liberal democracy: “proletarian democracy”.

Against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, Marx opposed the ideal of a workers’ or proletarian democracy. His criticism of political democracy in bourgeois society is that it is a sham democracy for workers–a sham democracy because, no matter what their paper privileges may be, the workers cannot control the social conditions of their life.

In the nature of the case, a workers’ democracy–based upon collective ownership of the means of production–does not involve democracy for bankers, capitalists and their supporters who would bring back a state of affairs which would make genuine social democracy impossible. (49)

How is proletarian democracy different from dictatorship?

According to Marx, in at least two important respects. First, it expresses the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population, and by providing a social environment in which human values rather than property values are the guiding principles of social control permits the widest development of free and equal personality. Second, as the democratic processes of socialist economy expand and embrace in its productive activities the elements of the population which were formerly hostile, the repressive functions of the estate gradually disappear. (49).

This paragraph has the tragic ring of utopian optimism about the “withering away of the state”, and observers of the logic of Stalinist repression would note — this expectation of gradual democratization is absurdly unlikely. It sounds like an op-ed piece in the Daily Worker. Hook is strongly opposed to the dictatorship of the party (50); but the logic of power demonstrates that what he describes is a fairy tale. And later in his career, it is doubtful that Hook would have claimed or expected such a benign development. I will return to Hook’s views later.

Bertrand Russell

Russell responds directly to the question, “Why I am not a Communist’. He makes it clear that by “Communist” he means “a person who accepts the doctrines of the Third International” (52) — that is, a Stalinist. His reasons are stated succinctly. He denies “historical necessity” to any particular process of historical change — including the necessary triumph of socialism over capitalism. He finds the theories of value and surplus value in Marx to be indefensible. He rejects the concept of “heroic infallibility” of any individual — whether of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. Unlike Hook, he takes the “dictatorship of the proletariat” at its plain meaning and rejects it because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. As a sociological fact he observes that Soviet Communism is highly repressive of liberty — freedom of thought and expression — and he rejects it on that basis as well.

He also has several more minor objections. Marx glorifies manual work over intellectual work. “Class war” is unlikely to succeed, and politics should proceed through persuasion rather than violence. Communism is grounded in hate, and hate is not a basis for social reconciliation. The claim that we must choose between communism and fascism is a wholly false choice; there is a third alternative — liberal progressive democracy.

John Dewey

John Dewey’s response to the question is similar to Russell’s. Soviet Communism is authoritarian, repressive, and dogmatic. The Communist view of history is deterministic and monistic. The primacy Marxism gives to class conflict over-estimates this particular economic source of conflict within society Worse, the threat of proletarian uprising is likely to bring about fascism. Communist politics — the behavior of the Communist state and its functionaries — rely on lies, deception, and betrayal. And social change created only through violence by one group against another cannot succeed.

Were a large scale revolution to break out in highly industrialized America, where the middle class is stronger, more militant and better prepared than anywhere else in the world, it would either be abortive, drowned in a blood bath, or if it were victorious, would win only a Pyrrhic victory. The two sides would destroy the country and each other. (56)

Dewey’s response gives the impression of a person who has reflected seriously both on history and on the pro’s and con’s of communism. His rejection of communism is fully considered and reflective.

Morris Raphael Cohen

Morris Cohen too gives powerful intellectual and personal reasons why he is not a communist. He finds Marx’s political economy highly illuminating; but the associated theory of revolution and socialism is unacceptable to him. Most importantly, the experience of Soviet Communism is a humanly appalling example of repression and dictatorship. Cohen makes a very interesting historical point: uprisings by single groups almost always lead to disaster, massacre, and oppressive reaction (58). Profound social change requires a high level of social concurrence. He draws attention to the social violence that the USSR is brought to impose:

To this day the Communist regime dare not declare openly in favor of nationalizing the land. Their system of cooperatives is frankly an attempt–and I do not believe it will be a successful attempt–to evade the peasants’ unalterable opposition to communism so far as their own property is concerned. (59)

(Here again — the collectivization of farmland in Ukraine and the horrendous war of starvation against the kulaks was just beginning in 1933-34 in the USSR.)

Rather than harsh dictatorial imposition of the will of one class over another, Cohen offers the view that real social change requires cooperation among social groups:

If the history of the past is any guide at all, it is that real improvements in the future will come like the improvements of the past, namely, through cooperation between different groups, each of which is wise enough to see the necessity of compromising with those with whom we have to live together and whom we cannot or do not wish to exterminate. (60)

And, like Russell, he believes that the argument that one must choose between communism and fascism is entirely specious:

When the communists tell me that I must choose between their dictatorship and fascism I feel that I am offered the choice between being shot or being hanged. It would be suicide for liberal civilization to accept this as exhausting the field of human possibility. I prefer to hope that the present wave of irrationalism and of fanatical intolerance will recede and that the great human energy which manifests itself in free thought will not perish. Often before it has emerged after being swamped by passionate superstitions. There is no reason to feel that it may not do so again. (62)

Sidney Hook (rebuttal)

The primary line of criticism of Communism offered by Eddy, Russell, Dewey, and Cohen is their forthright rejection of the dictatorial and repressive nature of the Communist regime in the USSR, along with their view that these features derive in some way from some of the features of Marx’s own theory of socialism and class conflict. Hook too rejects dictatorship and repression. But he argues that these features are not inherent in a Marxist-socialist revolutionary regime; they are accidents of history. In this it seems that history has plainly refuted him.

But let’s ask the more fundamental question: why did Hook remain a committed Marxist? Why did Hook persist (in 1934) in affirming the importance of socialist revolution? It was because he continued to pay a great deal of attention to the other aspect of Marx’s analysis: the systemic exploitation, domination, and indignity to which the working class is subject within capitalism, without any realistic hope of change absent comprehensive economic revolution. He was Marxist in his socialism because he was Marxist in his diagnosis of how capitalism unavoidably works, and he thought there was no other way to end exploitation and domination of the working class.

It is the absence of a realistic alternative program and path of action which makes the criticism of the communist position — justified as it may appear to be from an abstract ideal position — irrelevant to the pressing tasks of combating capitalism, fascism and war. (65)

However, this is intellectual stubbornness, because there were in fact realistic alternative programs. Laissez-faire capitalism was not the only non-communist political-economic regime to serve as an alternative to communism. The germs of social democracy were already visible in western Europe in the 1930s, including in the socialist and workers’ movements in Britain.

It is hard not to see Hook as an apologist for communist dictatorship in this period of his thinking — even though he explicitly rejects Soviet repression and dictatorship. “My own position is briefly that the fundamental doctrine of communism is sound but it has been so wrapped up in certain dogmas that its logic and force has been obscured” (74). This is either simple naïveté, or simple apologetics. Further, his unwarranted confidence in the Communist movement shows up here:

Communists would not martyrize an entire people as the fascists have done, they would not countenance wholesale massacres of innocent victims, they would not pound and torture women and children in order to achieve power. (71)

The year of this symposium was 1934. And the Soviet Union was engaged in precisely those practices at that time, including especially the horrendous war of starvation against the Ukraine, with four million deaths by hunger. It is interesting that Hook quotes New York Times reporter Walter Duranty. Duranty was the journalist in 1932 who popularized the aphorism, “If you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to scramble eggs” (link).

Hook closes his rebuttal with an indefensible call to repeat a failed experiment: “The time has now come to build a new revolutionary party in America and a new revolutionary international” (89). In this debate, Dewey and Cohen show the greatest wisdom: work towards greater fairness, equality, and liberty through cooperation among social groups in a democratic society.

What I find interesting about this debate is the fact that it is much deeper, about issues that really matter, than any discussions of alternative futures for humanity that might be feasible for future generations that are in the air today. What was at issue in 1934 was whether it was possible to have a decent society for all citizens within the framework of a democratic market-based economy; or, instead, only collective ownership and party rule could ensure equality. There are alternatives — for example, social democracy and the Nordic model — but we no longer seem to want to have those fundamental conversations (link).

Paradigms, conceptual frameworks, and denkkollektive

Image: Ludwik Fleck as prisoner / scientist in Buchenwald

An earlier post opened a discussion of the “historical turn” in the philosophy of science in the early 1960s (link). This innovation involved two large and chiefly independent features: deep attention to the social and institutional context of scientific research, and the intriguing idea that research communities give rise to specific “mentalities” or conceptual schemes that are distinctive to that community. The previous post focused on the social and institutional contexts of science. Here I am interested in unpacking the second point about the specialized conceptual schemes and mental frameworks of scientific research communities.

This dimension of the sociological approach to the history of science has primarily to do with the mental frameworks of the practitioners. Here I am referring to the thinking, concepts, and practices of the practitioners within a give area of scientific research. This is the idea that participants in a research community develop shared mental or cognitive frameworks and conceptual schemes on the basis of which to organize their research and theories about the domains they study. It is sometimes argued that these schemes are to some extent incommensurable across research communities (as Kuhn sometimes maintained), leading to the difficulty or impossibility of genuine communication across research traditions. The guiding intuition is that the scientists’ conceptual schemes are embedded in an extended social discourse within the research community, and the meanings (and even references) associated with key scientific terms differ systematically from one research community to the other. Important examples include Thomas Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm (link), Imre Lakatos’s conception of a research programme, or Ludwik Fleck’s conception of a “thought collective” (link).

Let’s first consider Kuhn’s claims about incommensurability across scientific paradigms. (Oberheim and Hoyningen-Huene’s article on incommensurability in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very helpful; link.) The idea of a paradigm is somewhat unclear in the original version of Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In its narrow meaning a paradigm is simply a clear example or illustration of something — for example, a well-designed chemistry experiment. (“This is how you separate heavy water from common H20.”) But more commonly Kuhn uses the concept of paradigm more broadly, intending to refer to the heterogeneous mix of material and cognitive practices shared by a scientific research tradition — laboratory procedures, theoretical concepts, methodological principles, dissemination practices, ideas about the use of evidence and experimental data, and so on. In the 1969 postscript to SSR Kuhn refines his language of paradigm to refer to a “disciplinary matrix”. A disciplinary matrix is “an entire theoretical, methodological, and evaluative framework within which scientists conduct their research” (174). The implication is that if one has acquired his or her intellectual reflexes within a discipline, each statement within the science will have a meaning that is affected by other elements of the framework.

(It is worth noting that this point about the dependency of the meaning of a theoretical sentence on a myriad of other commitments and concepts is similar to Quine’s explanation in Word and Object of the underdetermination of theory and the indeterminacy of translation: the “meanings” of individual sentences can be adjusted according to the status of other assertions in the web of belief. In Quine’s example: in the presence of a certain common small animal, I refer to “rabbit”, you refer to “gavagai“, and we cannot determine whether gavagai refers to the “individual whole animal” that I have in mind, or your own conceptual scheme of “undetached rabbit parts”.)

Here is the first place that Kuhn refers to incommensurability in SSR. The concept arises in discussing successive schools of scientific thought such as Ptolemy and Copernicus:

What differentiated these various schools was not one or another failure of method—they were all “scientific”—but what we shall come to call their incommensurable ways of seeing the world and of practicing science in it. Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science. But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief. An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time. (3)

A hundred pages later he returns to the topic of paradigm incommensurability:

As a result, the reception of a new paradigm often necessitates a redefinition of the corresponding science. Some old problems may be relegated to another science or declared entirely “unscientific.” Others that were previously nonexistent or trivial may, with a new paradigm, become the very archetypes of significant scientific achievement. And as the problems change, so, often, does the standard that distinguishes a real scientific solution from a mere metaphysical speculation, word game, or mathematical play. The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often actually incommensurable with that which has gone before. (103)

It should be noted that Kuhn’s claims of incommensurability generally comes with qualifications. It is not a general claim of radical mutual unintelligibility across scientific research communities, but rather a claim about the impossibility of perfect and exact translation: “After he has done so [stepped from the old paradigm to the new] the world of his research will seem, here and there, incommensurable with the one he had inhabited before. This is another reason why schools guided by different paradigms are always slightly at cross-purposes” (111). The highlighted phrases demonstrate the intended softening of the claim.

The claim of incommensurability certainly seems to be a view about the mental constructs — ideas, concepts, ways of evaluating claims — that scientists use in their theories and their empirical and experimental practices. Kuhn, and later Feyerabend, seem to assert that participants in competing paradigms of the “same” subject matter see the world differently, and cannot fully agree or disagree with each other about apparently fundamental statements about the world. The classical physicist “parses” the physical world differently than does the relativistic physicist. And these mental schemes are conveyed to the young physicist through his or her training in the discipline; they are only partially formalized in the apparatus of scientific knowledge. In Michael Polanyi’s formulation, they are a form of “tacit knowledge”: “the aim of a skillful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them”; Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: 49. Ways of viewing a laboratory across paradigms are sufficiently different that it requires a “gestalt shift” for a scientist to view the world through the alternative theoretical constructs. All of this sounds “mental”.

(Here again Quine’s views of semantics in Word and Object and “Ontological Relativity” are relevant. Quine seeks to undermine the “museum myth” of sentence meanings. “Uncritical semantics is the myth of a museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels. To switch languages is to change the labels” (186).)

Now let’s turn to a scientist-philosopher whose work influenced Kuhn’s, Ludwik Fleck. (A prior discussion of Fleck’s work can be found here.) Fleck was a Polish scientist who offered a similar view of scientific conceptual spaces in 1935 in Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1979/1935). Fleck was a medical researcher, and he developed his view of scientific concepts and research communities in Genesis around the example of the development of the concept of syphilis over several centuries.

Fleck was an important innovator in both aspects of the “historical turn” in science studies. Fleck’s approach to the history and philosophy of science championed both aspects of the founding ideas of historicized science studies — the importance of the specific social settings of the scientists, and the cognitive features of scientific work within a community of researchers. He emphasized the importance of the specific social arrangements within which scientific knowledge is produced:

When we look at the formal aspect of scientific activities, we cannot fail to recognize their social structure. We see organized effort of the collective involving a division of labor, cooperation, preparatory work, technical assistance, mutual exchange of ideas, and controversy. Many publications bear the names of collaborating authors. Scientific papers almost invariably indicate both the establishment and its director by name. There are groups and a hierarchy within the scientific community: followers and antagonists. societies and congresses, periodicals, and arrangements for exchange. A well-organized collective harbors a quantity of knowledge far exceeding the capacity of any one individual. (42)

Fleck also emphasized the conceptual dependency or incommensurability that became important in Kuhn’s thought. In particular, Fleck offered a highly original idea about the social or “collective” nature of scientific concepts with his idea of a “thought collective” (denkkollektiv). (Thaddeus Trenn, the translator of Genesis and Development, notes that this term is a neologism introduced by Fleck, and it has no natural counterpart in English.) Here is how Fleck defines denkkollektiv:

If we define “thought collective” [denkkollektiv] as a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction, we will find by implication that it also provides the special “carrier” for the historical development of any field of thought, as well as for the given stock o f knowledge and level of culture. This we have designated thought style. The thought collective thus supplies the missing component. (39)

Fleck illustrates the dependence of scientific theory on the specific denkkollektiv with the example of the development of the modern concept of the agent of syphilis:

Siegel also recognized, in his own way, protozoa-like structures as the causative agent of syphilis. If his findings had had the appropriate influence and received a proper measure of publicity throughout the thought collective, the concept of syphilis would be different today. Some syphilis cases according to present-day nomenclature would then perhaps be regarded as related to variola and other diseases caused by inclusion bodies. Some other cases would be considered indicative of a constitutional disease in the strict sense of the term. Following the train of thought characterized by the “carnal scourge” idea, still another, completely different set of concepts concerning infectious disease and disease entities would have arisen. Ultimately we would still have reached a harmonious system of knowledge even along this line, but it would differ radically from the current one. (39)

The point here is important and plausible. Assumptions about biological structures, causation, and disease accreted within one research tradition — one denkkollektiv — constituted an extended and growing system of statements, investigative procedures, and research groups as scientific understanding of syphilis developed, and the theories and findings of the science must be interpreted in terms of that system of beliefs and assumptions. But the development of such a system is a highly contingent process, and a different ensemble of assumptions was possible. On that alternative ensemble, the eventual scientific product would have been quite different. This suggests the idea of “brachiation” in evolutionary theory, where the founder finch has one set of properties, and the daughter variants continue to diverge until there is little similarity with the founder or among the daughter sub-species. ;

The incommensurability to which Fleck refers seems to be of a fairly ordinary kind: if the scientist in the B-denkkollektiv of syphilis science frames his or her thinking in terms of dramatically different ways from scientists in the A-denkkollektiv — different ways of defining the problem, different views of biological causation, and different assumptions about “causative agents”, then their apparently simple statements about the disease will be difficult to inter-translate. This implies that apparently similar statements in A-language and B-language will have significantly different meanings, implications, and avenues of investigation for the two communities. The scientists in the two denkkollektive in the same domain will often talk past each other — just as Kuhn asserts 25 years later in SSR.

To some extent a close reading of both Kuhn and Fleck serves to de-dramatize the implications of “incommensurability” that each asserts. Neither of these theorists puts forward a radical view of mutual unintelligibility across research communities, or a radical relativism of the findings of science in a particular field of research. Both reject the simple reductionist semantics of positivism (verificationism, instrumentalism) according to which the meaning of a scientific concept can be fully articulated as a set of procedures for verification. But they do not seem to think that conversation with comprehension is impossible between classical physicists and relativity or quantum physicists, or between wave theorists and particle theorists in subatomic physics, or between gradualists and punctuated-equilibrium theorists in evolutionary theory. Substantive disagreements about the domain of investigation and conflicting predictions about outcomes are possible, and that is enough to allow for meaningful scientific discourse to proceed across paradigms or “thought collectives”. In this respect both Kuhn and Fleck are less radical than Berger and Luckmann (link), who make a case for an extreme version of conceptual relativism across cultures in The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.

(Polish researcher Paweł Jarnicki has written extensively on Fleck and on the relationship between Fleck’s ideas and those of Kuhn. His article “On the shoulders of Ludwik Fleck? On the bilingual philosophical legacy of Ludwik Fleck and its Polish, German and English translations” provides a fascinating philological study of the difficulties of translation raised by Fleck’s multilingual writings (link).)

(Here is a discussion of “conceptual frameworks” that is relevant to this discussion of incommensurability of scientific concepts and statements (link).)

Social embeddedness of scientific and cultural work

How do complex, socially embodied processes of cultural and scientific creation work? (I’m thinking of artistic traditions, scientific research communities, literary criticism schools, high-end culinary experts, and mental health professionals, for example.) This is a complex question, by design. It is a question about how a field of “cumulative” symbolic production moves forward and develops; so it is related to intellectual history, art history, and the philosophy of science. But it is also a question about the social embeddedness of creative work — the idea that the practitioners of literary theory, political science, high-energy physics, biology, or international relations theory proceed within material and social conditions, institutions, and incentives and constraints that train, guide, and valorize practitioners.

One of the important developments in the philosophy of science since 1970 was the development of large concepts designed to capture the social and institutional context of science, and to discover how the details of these social arrangements influence the content and value of the resulting scientific research. Thomas Kuhn’s framing of the history of science around paradigms, normal science, and anomaly was one of the early contributions to this perspective, as was Imre Lakatos’s focus on research programmes. There has emerged a strong interest in studying the sociological context of scientific and cultural work, and the institutions that facilitate and regulate publication and validation in various fields. These contextual arrangements define the systems of valuation that distinguish “good” products from “bad” products (good pieces of scientific discovery, good works of literary criticism). And they determine the prestige and career prospects of the researchers.

The “historical turn” in the study of science resulted in two large and independent innovations in how to think about “science in context”. The first is the recognition that scientific work (or cultural work) takes place within specific social and material conditions, and it is important to study those environments. The second is that research communities develop forms of “social cognition” that are specialized to their community, and that strongly influence the ways that they conceive of the world and design their research efforts. Both aspects are important insights, but they derive from separate insights into scientific work. I will address the social cognition feature in a later post.

The “new sociology of knowledge” (link) represents a fresh start on the “social embeddedness” orientation towards culture and knowledge, building on interdisciplinary fields like Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (link). Charles Camic, Neil Gross, and Michele Lamont offer examples of some very interesting recent work in this field in Social Knowledge in the Making. Here is one of the core observations that the editors draw from the research contributions to the volume:

One of these themes is that social knowledge practices are multiplex, composed of many different aspects, elements, and features, which may or may not work in concert. Surveying the broad terrain mapped across the different chapters, we see, for example, the transitory practices of a short-lived research consortium as well as knowledge practices that endure for generations across many disciplines and institutions… (kl 338)

At site after site, heterogeneous social knowledge practices occur in tandem, layered upon one another, looping around and through each another, interweaving and branching, sometimes pulling in the same directions, sometimes in contrary directions. (kl 353)

The social-embeddedness approach to thinking about science and culture is intended to situate a cultural or scientific activity within a set of social/intellectual relationships, with the background hypothesis that the activity develops as a result of the cognitive, symbolic, and material relationships that exist among its practitioners. These may include graduate curricula, laboratory procedures, journal publication policies, funding agencies, and the other social, political, and intellectual/institutional resources that exist within that community of practitioners.

Detailed studies in the sociology of science shed light on how this conception of scientific research and valuation takes place. Norwood Hanson’s Patterns of Discovery (1958) was one of the earliest careful studies of a physics laboratory that demonstrated the impossibility of maintaining a rigid separation between observation and theory — a key tenet of logical positivism. As such, Hanson’s work represented one of the earliest contributions to post-positivist philosophy of science. Since then a large field of study has emerged that focuses on the details of research communities and laboratories. Paul Rabinow’s Making PCR is a fascinating account of a biotech laboratory in which he documents the extensive interdependency that exists among research scientists, laboratory technicians, managers, research assistants, and others. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life provides an ethnographic study of a biological research lab.

Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “field” of cultural and intellectual activity (link) in The Field of Cultural Production falls in the broad category of the social-embeddedness approach to cultural and intellectual activities described here. The heart of Bourdieu’s concept of “field” is “relationality” — the idea that the participants in cultural production and their products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within “a space of positions and position-takings” (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.

The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in’ the field — literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. — is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)

This text give us a better idea of what a “field” encompasses for Bourdieu. It is a connected network of social activity in which there are “creators” who are intent on creating a certain kind of cultural product. The product is defined, in part, by the expectations and values of the audience — not simply the creator. The audience is multiple, from specialist connoisseurs to the mass public. And the product is supported and filtered by a range of overlapping social institutions — galleries, academies, journals, reviews, newspapers, universities, patrons, sources of funding, and the market for works of “culture.”

The social embeddedness of intellectual and scientific research is important and worth careful study. We learn a great deal about the course of development of fields such as “high-energy physics in the United States”, “neo-liberal economic development theory”, or “post-modern literary studies” by discovering the ways in which researchers in these fields are trained (graduate programs), how they are funded, how their results are evaluated for publication, how the national laboratories work, what the peer networks are, how the researchers are awarded the signs of success within the discipline, and so on. We can perhaps trace the spread of new ideas over a period of time — for example, computable general equilibrium models in development economics — based on an understanding of the institutional settings of the relevant discipline. And this “embeddedness” feature is quite general across fields of intellectual, cultural, and scientific work.

An important question arises within this framework: why should we expect these kinds of sociological institutions to lead to “better science”, more insightful literary criticism, or better ethnography? We can certainly point to what Lakatos referred to as “degenerating research programmes”, and the case of Soviet biology under the iron hand of Trofim Lysenko provides a clear example of “bad science resulting from a disciplined research community”. Examples like these confirm that a “disciplinary matrix” is no guarantee of scientific progress or eventual discovery of the truth about a domain.

This is a question that philosophers of science have confronted, and there are substantive efforts to provide answers to the question, revolving around the fact that the empirical world provides its own feedback to bad science (through observation, experiment, and independent critical thinking). There is also a “bootstrapping” mechanism at work in the peer-review process for evaluating scientific work for publication, though it is also clear that a peer-review process may also have perverse results. Dogma is a risk within a scientific research community no less than in a culinary community (never, never, never use dried basil for pesto!). This is the point of the critique involved in the Perestroika debate in political science (link), where the critics maintain that orthodox journal editors and power holders show a dogmatic adherence to rational-choice theory over other possible approaches, and there is an equally deep divide within sociology over the validity of non-quantitative methods for sociological research (link). The fissure in literary studies between post-modern criticism and what Satya Mohanty calls “realist literary theory” represents a disciplinary divide in the humanities. All of that accepted — it is seems clear that scientific understanding of the world proceeds best when scientists criticize each others’ research on the basis of evidence and theoretical coherence. Fallible, yes; but a better bet than any other approach humanity has considered. We might go further and postulate that some institutional arrangements work better than others for promoting the truth-enhancing goals of science — for example, institutions that encourage independent thinking across ranks within the discipline.

The GOP descent into right-wing authoritarianism

In December 2020 I reviewed Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism (link) to try to assess the damage and threats created for our democracy by Donald Trump’s conduct as president. There were very worrisome indications at that time of the slide towards an authoritarian political regime caused by Trump’s behavior and language. 

Unhappily, the situation in the United States has worsened significantly since then. Less than a month after the post appeared the attempt to violently overturn the lawful election of President Joe Biden took place. Former president Trump continued to press his groundless lies about a stolen election. Republican members of Congress excused and justified the attempted insurrection of January 6. Violent militias and armed white supremacy groups have been encouraged by Trump and Republican politicians to make their presence known. Active calls to violence against “liberal Democrats” and RINOs have been featured by candidates in their advertising and social media campaigns. All of this sounds like a highly dangerous acceleration of the authoritarian, anti-democratic values of the GOP at almost all levels of leadership.

It is worthwhile to review the main tendencies that Arendt associated with the totalitarian impulse. These features are her observations of totalitarian regimes, based on her study of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. And they seem highly relevant to the political environment in the United States today, based on a sober assessment of GOP behavior throughout the country.

1. Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or worldview, often involving racism and social division.

The racism, xenophobia, and gender-hostile content of Trumpism and GOP political ideology is apparent — most recently in the Texas GOP platform enacted in June 2022. This unifying right-wing extremist ideology, now becoming mainstream in the GOP, encompasses anti-LGBTQ values and policies, anti-immigrant language, and a deference to white supremacy and serves as a rallying call for the GOP.

2. Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions.

The GOP from top to bottom, with a very small number of exceptions (e.g. Cheney, Kinzinger, Romney), demonstrates virulent antagonism to the values of a democracy (respect for electoral institutions, respect for one’s political adversaries, recognition that government represents all the people, not only one’s own supporters) and determined hostility to the institutions of democracy (racially designed rules for voter registration, locations of voting stations, rules governing absentee ballots, …). This list could be continued as a 20-page indictment. The anti-democratic idea of implementing “electoral college” systems in state elections (Colorado, Texas) is another instance of a profoundly racist attempt to minimize the votes of urban voters.

3. Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives.

The alignment of Donald Trump and many GOP elected officials and leaders with violent organizations such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and many other violent militias and organizations has been documented by the House select committee investigation (link). The use of violent video and threats by GOP candidates in election ads is a frightening and rising phenomenon — for example, Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greiten’s campaign ad boasting open season on RINOs and featuring a special forces team invading a home (link). Many GOP candidates have used campaign images and videos featuring themselves with semi-automatic weapons — a deliberate linkage between politics and deadly violence. And the threats and acts of violent harassment reported by election officials in multiple states at the June 21 House January 6 committee meeting are thoroughly chilling. These actions by Trump supporters are reminiscent of violence in Berlin and Rome at the time of the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

4. Fundamental deference to the Leader.

The cult of Donald Trump is legendary. What is astonishing and frightening is the almost absolute hold this cult leader has on his mass following and the elected Republican officials who crave his support and endorsement. “Deference to the Leader” has new meaning in American politics following the Trump phenomenon. “”I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Trump remarked at a campaign stop at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. “It’s, like, incredible”” (link). Yes, it is incredible.

5. Persistent use of lies and fabrications.

Trump’s willingness to lie is legendary. The “Big Lie” about election fraud is the most egregious example, since it has created a dangerous and volatile social movement based on loyalty to Trump and willingness to adopt his lies. But lying is the fundamental mechanism of Trump’s political strategy. The Washington Post estimated that Trump had told 30,573 lies during his presidency (link). The movement mobilized by Trump has continued to use lies to further its activism — for example, about COVID, about vaccination safety, and about the many conspiracy theories promulgated by outlets like QAnon.

6. Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders.

Intimidation of non-compliant Republican office-holders has been apparent since Trump’s defeat in 2020. Physical threats of violence have occurred (most recently against Adam Kinzinger), but also against other Republican House members who voted for impeachment, such as Fred Upton and Peter Meijer. In addition to threats of physical violence, non-compliant Republican candidates have been bullied in public meetings and vilified as RINOs. Public independence from Trump by GOP candidates is generally seen as political suicide.

7. Fellow-traveler organizations.

White supremacist organizations have been very public in their support for Trumpism. Many evangelical churches and organizations are unquestioning in their support for Trump and Trumpism. Fox News commentators have provided powerful propaganda support for Trumpism.

If these are reasonable markers of the makings of a totalitarian regime, as Arendt argued they are, then the US democracy is in serious, grave jeopardy. Our political sphere — driven by the political worldview, motivations, and determination of the GOP throughout the country — has declined rapidly by these criteria since 2016, and the decline accelerated in 2020.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the form of government the GOP would like to see is an authoritarian sham democracy in which only their supporters have the ability to vote, and in which GOP majorities are free to carry out their ideological agenda: reduce reproductive rights, subordinate the courts to the status of ideological henchmen, empower ever-wider ownership and brandishing of semi-automatic weapons, place ideologically inspired restrictions on curriculum from kindergarten to graduate school in public institutions, and restrict freedom of thought and expression when it comes to GOP hot topics (gender, race, BLM, CRT, …).

What would it take for moderate conservatives with integrity and democratic values to regain their positions of influence and voice within the GOP? As for the leaders and elected officials who are taking their party down the road of unhinged extremism — history will regard you with shame and infamy.

Philosophy after the Holocaust

The sustained, extended atrocities of the twentieth century — the genocide of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, totalitarian repression, the Gulag, the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanjing — require new questions and new approaches to the problems of philosophy. What are some of those new questions and insights that philosophers should take up? How can philosophy change its focus in order to better recognize and address the evils of the twentieth century?

If philosophy matters at all, its importance derives from the honest efforts of philosophers over the past millennia to answer fundamental questions about the good of a human life and the nature of a good society. Philosophy is about values and the prospects for a peaceful, free future for all of humanity. Its most basic problems have to do with how we human beings create meaning and values for ourselves, and how we can create structures of social life that permit the unfolding of the freedoms and capabilities of each of us. The evils of the twentieth century demonstrated that there are dark alternatives that can be realized in history on the largest scale imaginable: mass killing, enslavement, dehumanization, degradation, and totalitarian subordination of whole peoples. How can philosophy address these terrible realities? How can philosophy contribute to humanity’s ability to prevent those atrocious outcomes in the future?

First, philosophy must be engaged in the realities of human life and history. There is an urgent need for greater concreteness and historical specificity in philosophical discussions in ethics, social and political philosophy, and the philosophy of history. Philosophy can become more genuinely insightful by becoming more concrete and historical. One way to achieve this specificity is to include study and reflection about the first-person documents deriving from participants’ experience. Philosophers are inclined to couch their ideas at a high level of generality. But understanding the evils of the Holocaust requires us to find ways of making even better use of these first-hand experiential sources, without the suspicion of “bias” that often hampered previous historical uses of them. Survivors’ testimonies and interviews, travelers’ reports, and other first-person statements of what happened to individual people must be treated with seriousness, compassion, and a critical eye. Piecing together a single incident on the basis of a few hundred survivors’ reports turns out to be extremely difficult (Christopher Browning). And yet without the reports of participants, survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators, it is virtually impossible to come to a deep human understanding of the realities of the experience of roundups of Jews in Berdichev or daily life and death in Treblinka. A crucial part of the learning we need to do from the Holocaust or the Holodomor is to gain the painful understanding of the individual human suffering experienced by each individual, in the tens of millions. This suggests the relevance of “phenomenological” and descriptive approaches to human life circumstances, informed by real historical understanding of the concrete and lived experience of participants.

Second, it is plain that the scope of events like the Holocaust requires new thinking about historical knowledge. The topic is enormous, encompassing world war, a totalitarian state, organized murder in dozens of countries, a pervasive and varied ideology of hate, and associated violence and murder by affiliates and collaborators throughout a vast region. Specialized historical research is needed into a vast range of topics and locations — for example, Ukrainian nationalist collaborators, the command structure of Einsatzgruppen, the role of Krupp and Farben in the genocide of Europe’s Jews. All of these specialized investigations are crucial to a broad collective understanding of this continent-wide catastrophe. And yet they contribute to a patchwork of areas of understanding of the Holocaust, distributed over hundreds of journals, monographs, and institutes. A historian who specializes in the genocide against Ukraine’s Jews may know little or nothing about the circumstances of the extinction of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. There is thus a critical role for historical synthesis at a higher level of scope – like the work of Timothy Snyder and Alexander Prusin – that helps to knit together factors that would otherwise seem separate.

Third, there are the familiar questions of explanation that must be confronted by historians and philosophers concerning the Holocaust, on a vast scale. What were the political, social, and ideological causes of Germany’s genocidal intentions? What were the features of organization and control through which these intentions were brought to implementation in such ferocity and persistence across Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in just a few months in 1941? It is crucial to maintain an understanding of the “ conjunctural and multi-causal” nature of large episodes like the Holocaust, and historians should be cautious about simple, single-factor explanations.

Similarly, there are questions of understanding of human actions during these evil times. What were the political and ideological circumstances that led ordinary central European men and women to engage in murder and torture against their Jewish neighbors? How can we understand this mentality and these choices? What were the states of mind of senior military officers in the Wehrmacht who carried out genocidal orders? What about the ordinary soldiers who were sometimes called upon to commit murder against the innocent? How can we understand these actions?

Fifth, philosophy is forced to reconsider common assumptions about human nature, morality, benevolence, and rationality that have often guided philosophical thinking. The simple assumptions of the social contract tradition – whether minimalist in the hands of Hobbes or more nuanced in the hands of Rousseau – do not suffice as a basis for understanding real human history. It is true that sociality, a love of freedom, and a degree of benevolence can be discerned in human affairs; but so can cruelty, hatred, betrayal, and irrationality. It is inescapable that human beings are neither wild animals nor benevolent and rational citizens. Instead, it is important to follow out Herder’s ideas about the contingency of culture and values, and reconstruct more nuanced understandings of human nature in specific historical and social settings (link).

Philosophy for a democratic people

These points have to do with understanding the past, in the aim of preparing for a better future. But understanding the present is also a crucial task — both for philosophers and for citizens. Philosophy needs to help citizens in a democracy to diagnose the malevolent tendencies of hatred and authoritarianism as they emerge, rather than after they have come to full fruition. And philosophy needs to provide citizens with the habits of mind of engagement and motivation that permit them to resist those tendencies while resistance is still feasible. If the common human impulses of “looking the other way” and remaining passive guide our behavior when authoritarianism and hatred emerge, it will be too late to oppose those tendencies once they have seized states and political movements. Hungary’s citizens have been silent too long for the health of their democracy. If Donald Trump had been swiftly removed from office through impeachment and conviction following the January 6 insurrection based on a bipartisan consensus, think about how much more secure democracy in the United States would be today.

In the year 2022 citizens in western democracies have two highly sobering examples before them that need their attention. First is the plain and determined effort by former president Donald Trump to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election and to subvert the institutions and laws that surround the election process in order to do so. The investigations undertaken by the House January 6 committee make it clear that Trump’s efforts, and the concerted and organized efforts of his supporters, amounted to an attempted coup against American democracy. The democracy of the United States was at its greatest risk since the American Civil War.

The second example from 2022 is even more terrible: the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine in February, 2022, and the atrocious war against innocent civilians that has ensued. Russian forces have tortured and mutilated civilians, executed civilians, targeted hospitals and sanctuaries with artillery and bomb attacks, and have sent untold thousands of civilians to “filtration camps” in Ukraine and Russia. All of these tactics are war crimes over and above the war crime of conducting aggressive war against a neighboring country (link). International institutions like the United Nations have been powerless in opposing this war of aggression, while the European and North American military alliance NATO has provided substantial support to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. The devastation that Ukraine and its citizens face is comparable to the harm it suffered from Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1943. This event underlines the continuing potential of totalitarian regimes to undertake atrocities against the innocent.

The first example illustrates that democracies are vulnerable to attack by unscrupulous political leaders and their loyal and sometimes violent followers. Democratic political institutions are not a guarantee against seizure of power by anti-democratic political forces and leaders. Further, there is a growing level of ideological support from “ordinary people” for the anti-democratic and racist political appeals of political leaders inspired by Trump, and there is a growing network of violent individuals and organizations who are prepared to use force against the state and against their fellow citizens to achieve their ends. Equally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates the point that authoritarian dictatorships wield substantial power and capacity to impose suffering on other populations. The potential for evil persists in contemporary societies.

But there is an even more fundamental lesson to learn, about the need for public activism and civic engagement in support of democratic institutions. (That is the motivation for the image at the top of groups demanding legislation supporting gun safety.) We citizens in democracies need to be much better prepared to defend our institutions and our values, if the forces of hate and extremism are not to prevail. Democracy is not just about voting in elections; it is about engaging in peaceful mobilization and protest in support of democratic values, and against the efforts of the extremist right to dismantle our institutions.

Philosophy needs to be engaged in the world we face, and to actively contribute to preserving our democratic values. It is crucial for philosophers themselves to recognize that the atrocities of the twentieth century represented a singular moment in human history: a moment when states, parties, leaders, and ordinary citizens engaged in monstrous crimes, and a moment that must be confronted if those crimes are not to recur in the future. Philosophy must find fruitful ways of contributing to that dialogue. Is philosophy up to the task, or are philosophers forced to retreat to the study and consider only the most abstract and universal problems that have so often defined the field?

Dysfunctions of Soviet economic ministries

In my book A New Social Ontology of Government (2020) I tried to provide an analytical inventory of the sources of “dysfunctions” in large organizations and government agencies. Why do agencies like FEMA or the NRC so often do such a poor job in carrying out their missions? The book proposed that we can better understand the failures of agencies and corporations based on a “social ontology” of actors and networks of actors within large organizations. The book discusses principal-agent problems, failures of communication across an organization, inconsistent priorities and agendas in sub-agencies within an organization, corruption, and “capture” of the organization’s decision-making process by powerful outsiders (industry groups, interest groups, advocacy organizations).

It is very interesting to see a similar analysis by Paul Gregory and Andrei Markevich of the sources of dysfunction and organizational failure in the classic Soviet economic agencies in the 1930s-1950s. Their article “Creating Soviet Industry: The House That Stalin Built” (link) provides a good indication of the limitations of “command” even within a totalitarian dictatorship, and many of the conclusions converge with ideas presented in A New Social Ontology. Stalin’s economic agencies and central planning apparatus showed many of the failures identified in other large organizations in the democratic capitalist West.

First, a little background. In the 1930s and 1940s there was an idealized conception of economic organization current in socialist thought (both communist and non-communist) according to which a socialist economy could be rationally and scientifically organized, without the “chaos” of a disorganized capitalist economy. The socialist economy would be vertically organized, with a “chief executive” (boss of bosses) presiding over ministries representing major sectors of the economy and giving commands concerning basic economic factors. The chief executive would set the targets for final outputs of capital goods and consumer goods to be produced. Each ministry would be responsible for production, investment, and labor use for the industries and firms in its sector. The input needs of the overall economy and all sectors and enterprises would be represented in the form of vast input-output tables that capture the interdependency of industries throughout the economy. The professional staff of the chief executive would set final needs for each commodity — refrigerators, tanks, miles of railway tracks, … Each industry has “input” requirements for primary goods (steel, coal, labor, metals, machines, …), and an equilibrium economy requires that the right quantity of final goods and production goods should be calculated and produced to satisfy the needs of each industry as well as final demand. Wassily Leontief proposed a computational solution for this problem in the form of a large multi-sector input-output table — an NxN model for representing the input-output relationships among N industries. Suppose there are 100 basic industries, and each industry requires some quantity of the inputs provided by every other industry. We can now compute the quantity of iron ore, coal, electricity, and labor needed to produce the desired end products in one time period. The results of the I-O model permit the development of plans and quotas for each industry: how much product they need to produce, and how much raw material and other inputs they will need to consume to complete their quota. Now there is the apparently simple problem of organization and management: bosses, managers, and supervisors are recruited for each industry to implement the sub-plan for the various industries and enterprises, and to ensure that the production process is efficiently organized, waste is minimized, and quotas are reached. Production by each enterprise is managed by plans originating with the central economic ministry. Orders and quotas begin with the central ministry; master plans are broken out into sub-plans for each industry; and each industry is monitored to ensure that it succeeds in assembling its resources into the specified quota of output. And the I-O methodology eliminates waste: it is possible to plan for the amount of steel needed for all producers and the number of refrigerators needed for all consumers, so there is no surplus (or deficit) of steel or refrigerators.

This is a vertical conception of economic organization based on a command theory of organization. It is dependent on determination of final output targets at the top and implementation at the bottom. And it is coordinated by the modeling permitted by Leontief tables or something similar. Resource constraints are incorporated into the system by inspection of the final output targets and the associated levels of raw material inputs: if the total plan including capital goods and consumer goods results in a need for ten times the amount of iron ore or coal available to the nation, then output targets must be reduced, new sources of iron ore and coal (mining) need to be developed, or international trade must make up the deficit. International trade presents a new problem, however: it requires that a surplus of goods be available (consumer goods, capital goods, or raw materials) that can generate currency reserves capable of funding purchases from other countries. This in turn requires readjustment of the overall system of plans.

This description is incomplete in several important aspects. First, this account focuses on quantity rather than quality by setting quotas in terms of total output rather than output at a given level of quality. This means that directors and managers have the option of producing more low-quality steel or bread rather than a smaller quantity of high-quality product. Much as a commercial bakery on Main Street in Fargo can reach market goals by adulterating the bread it produces, so the railway wagon enterprise in Chelyabinsk can substitute inferior inputs in order to achieve output quotas. (Here is a critical assessment of product quality in the late Soviet economy and the last-ditch efforts made by Mikhail Gorbachev to address the issue of quality control; link.) But the problem is systemic: managing to quota does not reward high standards of quality control, and there is no way for consumers to “punish” producers for low-quality products in the system described here because price and demand play no role in the process.

A second shortcoming of this concept of a planned economy is that it leaves out entirely the possibility of technological change and process improvement; implicitly this conception of production and investment assumes a static process of production. Technology change can be reflected in the planning process described here, because technology change shifts the quantities of inputs required for production of a unit of output, so technology change would be reflected in the I-O table for the industries that it affects. But the model itself does not have a mechanism for encouraging technology innovation.

However, there is a more fundamental problem with the vertical description provided here: it makes assumptions about the capacity to implement a command system in a vast network of organizations that is completely impossible to achieve. It is simply not the case that Stalin could decree “10 million toasters needed in 1935”; his ministry of “Small Electrical Appliances” could take this decree and convert it into sub-plans and commands for regional authorities; and plant bosses could convert their directives into working orders, smoothly implemented, by their 1,000 toaster assemblers. Instead, at each juncture we can expect to find conflicting interests, priorities, problems, and accommodations that diverge from the idealized sub-plan delivered by telegram from the Ministry of Small Electrical Appliances. We may find then that firms and sub-ministry offices fail to meet their quotas of toasters; or they lie about production figures; or they build one-slice toasters at lower cost; or they may deliver the correct number of completely useless and non-functional toasters; or they may deliver the toasters commanded, but at the cost of shifting production away from the electric borscht cookers and leave great numbers of Soviet consumers short of their favorite soup. And in fact, these sorts of opportunistic adjustments are exactly what Gregory and Markevich find in their analysis of Soviet archives. So let’s turn now to the very interesting analysis these researchers provide of the organizational dysfunctions that can now be detected in Soviet archives.

Here is the approach taken by Gregory and Markevich:

The textbook stereotype has focused on the powerful State Planning Commission (Gosplan) as the allocator of resources, but most actual planning and resource management was carried out by the commissariats and more specifically by their branch administrations (glavk). This study considers the internal workings of the commissariats, rather their dealings with such organizations as Gosplan and the Commissariat of Finance. (789)

So, to start, Gregory and Markevich propose to disaggregate the Soviet organizational decision-making process, from the high-level planning agency to the commissariats and branch administrations — the more proximate levels of economic organization. In other words, they implicitly adopt the perspective taken by current organizational theorists in western organizational studies: the idea that large organizations consist of networks of more or less loosely connected centers of decision-making (linklinklinklink).

In the three-tiered Soviet system, the industrial commissariats occupied the intermediate level between the “dictator” (assisted by functional agencies such as Gosplan or the Commissariat of Finance) at the top, and enterprises subordinated to the industrial commissariat (at the bottom). The “dictator” was an interlocking directorate of officials from the Politburo and the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). Notably, the most important industrial commissars, such as Ordzhonikidze and later Kaganovich, were also members of the interlocking directorate, allowing them to plead their cases both within the dictatorship and as part of the system’s vertical hierarchy. (790)

The idealized view of the command economy emphasizes “vertical” relations of authority; whereas Gregory and Markevich pay much more attention to “horizontal” relations among managers, firms, and other economic actors. Horizontal agreements among managers within firms and across firms may act contrary to vertical commands; and because of the lack of accurate information, it may be impossible for higher-level bosses to punish those horizontal actors.

A perfectly informed dictator could impose vertical discipline, but the agent will always possess superior information (asymmetric information), and thus be left with the choice to obey or to engage in opportunistic behavior. Opportunism is promoted by the fact that the superior must hold the agent responsible, in this case, for production and delivery, and must mete out punishment for plan failure. The agent has an incentive to use its information advantage to obtain easy production and delivery plans and to provide inaccurate information in the case of plan failure. (792)

This feature of a command economy derives from “information asymmetry”. Another situational feature involves the fact that “plans” in the Soviet economic system were rarely exact or specific, which meant that managers could evade their responsibilities (perhaps excepting the quotas imposed on their units). Further, central planning ministries and offices were generally very poorly staffed, and therefore had little capacity to genuinely oversee and manage the enterprises within their formal scope. Further, the strategy of using increasing levels of punishment and threat against managers who failed to reach quotas and targets had perverse consequences for the “vertical” command structure; punishment tactics had the effect of incentivizing local managers to make separate horizontal deals with other actors and to withhold the truth about production to their superiors (799). (It is worth recalling that China’s Great Leap Forward Famine largely resulted from the fact that collective farm directors and regional economic authorities withheld information from Beijing about the terrible economic consequences of agricultural collectivization.)

As described earlier, in the nested Soviet dictatorship, the superior issues vertical orders to subordinates, which the subordinate either obeys or disobeys. In extreme cases, the subordinate might disobey the order outright; or the subordinate might disobey the order by engaging in a horizontal transaction while concealing this fact from the superior. In addition, the subordinate could lobby to influence the superior’s vertical orders, to shape them to be more suitable. The archives provide a wealth of information on all these dealings between superiors and subordinates. (801)

Gregory and Markevich’s analysis often turns on pervasive principal-agent problems within and across agencies and firms: “A persistent principal/agent conflict characterized the relationship between dictator and commissariat that followed from the commissariat’s requirement to “fulfill the plan” and from the commissariat’s information advantage” (813). But numerous other sources of “loose-connectedness” among agencies and firms appear in their analysis as well. And it is striking that there is a great deal in common across the organizational problems posed in running the Environmental Protection Agency (US), the GOSPLAN (USSR), and the General Motors Corporation.

Were reforms possible in the Communist economic systems?

In historical context, it is interesting to speculate whether some of the ideas associated with “market socialism” could have been incorporated into the Soviet economy in a way that enhanced quality, resource allocation, and technological and process innovation. Could the system of state-owned enterprises be reconciled with a system of market-determined prices? Could a state-owned economy become less centralized and more guided by “consumer preferences” and market conditions? Reforms along these lines would address some of the sources of systemic weakness in the Soviet economy — imbalanced investment decisions, poor quality of both consumer and capital goods, and slow technological and process innovation. But this kind of reform would have a fatal flaw from the point of view of the Soviet dictatorship: it would substantially reduce the power of the party and the dictator over the economy, over the use of labor, and over the questions of what is produced and in what quantities.

During 1989-1991 I had the special opportunity to have several lengthy conversations with Hungarian socialist economist Janos Kornai at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, at the time of the collapse of communism in Hungary and the pending collapse of the USSR. It was highly interesting to hear this astute observer’s observations about the economic failures of the command economy in the USSR and its satellites. From notes I took at the time, Kornai had in mind a package of reforms of socialism that might be referred to as “radical reform market socialism”. (1) Price reforms should be undertaken in order to establish a system of market-clearing prices, reflecting relative scarcities and real opportunity costs. (2) Enterprises should be regulated by the principle of profit-maximization, and they should be subject to a hard budget constraint; unprofitable enterprises should be allowed to go bankrupt. (3) Barriers to competition should be eliminated in commodity markets, labor markets, and capital markets. (4) The skewed size distribution of enterprises in socialist economies should be redressed, with a larger proportion of middle- and small-scale enterprises. (5) International trade should be encouraged and exchange rates should be realistic. (6) The state should enact strong and credible legal protections of the new economic institutions: land-use arrangements should be formalized, private businesses should be protected, and the right to accumulate property should be assured. Kornai was also aware of the negative economic and political consequences that reforms like these could have for countries like Hungary, Poland, or the USSR. A hard budget constraint on enterprises would be likely to lead to waves of bankruptcies among inefficient enterprises, producing large numbers of unemployed workers. Price reforms would be likely to significantly alter the pattern of income distribution across sectors and regions, including a rebalancing of urban-rural incomes. And substantial price reform might lead to high rates of inflation in the medium term, again leading to unpredictable political consequences. These are consequences that might be politically unacceptable for socialist states. I don’t recall that Kornai was favorable towards even deeper structural reforms of the socialist economies, including a transition to worker-owned cooperatives in place of state-owned enterprises.

Soviet atrocities in Ukraine, 1941

In light of the horrific information now available about atrocities committed in Ukraine by occupying Russian forces in towns such as Bucha — rape, torture, summary execution, as well as mass deportations to “filtration camps” — it is grimly important to recognize that there was a prior period of fantastic brutality and atrocity committed by Russians against Ukraine over eighty years ago. The NKVD — the secret police of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s reliable enforcers of murder and mayhem — carried out mass executions of tens of thousands of prisoners in prisons in western Ukraine in June 1941. At least 70% of these victims were Ukrainians, with 20% estimated to be Poles and the remainder Jews and other nationalities (Kiebuzinski and Motyl 28). The bulk of these prisoners were accused of political crimes or nationalist “anti-Soviet conspiracies”. These were prisoners whom the Soviet authorities took to be a threat to Soviet rule. These massacres were comparable in magnitude and ferocity to the executions of Polish prisoners of war and other members of the Polish elite undertaken by the NKVD in April 1940 in Katyn Forest and other locations. They were unforgivable crimes of war against innocent and unarmed people.

Surprisingly, the NKVD prison massacres have not been very extensively documented or noted until the past decade. One exception is John-Paul Himka, who takes note of the NKVD massacre of thousands of political prisoners in three prisons in Lviv in June 1941 in his article “The Lviv Pogrom of 1941: The Germans, Ukrainian Nationalists, and the Carnival Crowd” (2011 link):

The pogrom in Lviv occurred against the background of the proclamation of a Ukrainian state in that city on the first day of the German occupation, a subject to which we shall return. The other important contextual circumstance of the Lviv pogrom of 1941 was the discovery of thousands of decomposing corpses of political prisoners who had been murdered by the NKVD in the days previous, as the Soviets realized that the Germans were advancing too rapidly for them to evacuate the prisons. The stench of bodies emanated from the prisons, which were on fire when the Germans arrived on Monday 30 June. Many Ukrainian nationalists were among the victims. The Germans had the corpses retrieved, by Jews, and laid out for public display. Relatives of the prisoners searched among the bodies, looking for their loved ones. The bodies were found in three prisons: the Zamarstyniv street prison; the Brygidki prison; and the prison on Lontskoho. (Himka 2011: 210-211)

Himka provides further details about this Lviv massacre in “The Lontsky Street Prison Museum” (2015 link):

The history of the Lontsky St. prison during the Second World War is a brutal, tangled tale that this study will seek to clarify in order to show how the current museum presents a one-sided, politically motivated version of what transpired on its site. In brief, Lviv, and with it the prison, came under Soviet rule from September 1939 until June 1941. In addition to severe maltreatment of prisoners at Lontsky St. and at other prisons in Lviv, a maltreatment that was typical enough of Stalinist incarceration, the Soviets ended their control of the prisons in June 1941 with a horrific crime. Unable to evacuate the prisoners fast enough after the German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, the NKVD prison administration murdered the political prisoners to prevent their cooperation with the German enemy. As the posters in the museum inform visitors, in the last days of June 1941, the Soviets killed 1,681 prisoners at the Lontsky St. prison, 971 in the prison on Zamarstyniv St., and 739 in the Brygidki prison in Lviv. These killings, known as the NKVD murders, are the primary focus of the memorial museum today. (Himka 2015: 137-138)

But these references provide little detail or context of the broader massacre that occurred in many sites across western Ukraine. Soviet and Russian secrecy — especially about the criminal activities of the NKVD and its successors — has worked hard to conceal the human realities of these crimes.

Map: Kiebuzinski and Motyl 2017, Figure 1

Some of the obscurity of this period of murder by the NKVD came to an end in 2017 with the publication of The Great West Ukrainian Prison Massacre of 1941 by Ksenya Kiebuzinski and Alexander Motyl, family members and descendants of victims of this series of massacres. The volume is primarily a collection of documents that will permit other researchers to investigate the events more fully.

The editors note that Ukraine suffered enormously at the hands of Russians during the first half of the twentieth century:

According to a study published by the Moscow-based Institute of Demography, Ukraine suffered close to 15 million ‘excess deaths’ between 1914 and 1948. Of that number, about 7.5 million were attributable to Soviet policies and 6.5 million to Nazi policies. According to Nicolas Werth, meanwhile, the Stalinist regime killed some 12 million of its people. When we consider that over half of them were Ukrainian (far in excess of Ukrainians’ share of the total Soviet population), it is hard not to register outrage at this monstrous system’s hostility to its people in general and Ukrainians in particular. (Kiebuzinski and Motyl 2017: 27)

The volume provides a brief history of the events in an extensive introduction, but its primary goal is to provide archival materials that will permit other scholars to discover more of the details of this organized and deliberate slaughter. The planned purposiveness and cruelty of the slaughter is evident in the record:

The Massacre was not a spontaneous action by the retreating Red Army and NKVD, but, as numerous official documents attest, had been coordinated and planned by Soviet authorities. Especially striking is the fact that many prisoners were, as their obviously mutilated bodies suggested, viciously tortured before they were killed. (31)

And — like Russian military atrocities today in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine today — the victims of torture and murder of the great Massacre were immediately visible as the Red Army retreated:

No less important than the number of dead is that they were discovered within the space of little more than one week, in a single sustained, relentless wave. Every time the Soviets evacuated and/or the Germans entered a city or town, heaps of rotting corpses were found in prisons, ditches, or rivers. And since this was the height of summer, memoirists and eyewitnesses invariably mention the unbearable stench. (42)

In addition to wholesale murder, the NKVD organized mass deportations from the territories it seized following Germany’s invasion of Poland, in order to incorporate the territories into the USSR without popular opposition.

Fearful of national, anti-Soviet elements and an educated class in the new lands, and of their potential influence on Ukrainians to the east, the NKVD entered the territory in force. Mass arrests and deportations of formerly Polish citizens ensued, targeting first Poles and Jews, and then Ukrainians. (37)

The authors estimate at least one million deportations from these occupied territories (38). Again — there are reports of largescale deportations of Ukrainian people from eastern Ukraine today by Russian military and political forces.

Both Himka and Kiebuzinski and Motyl draw a connection between the NKVD atrocities and the surge of Ukrainian anti-Semitic violence and murder in 1941. German propaganda linking Communism and the Jewish populations of Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states — the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism” conveyed by Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine — played into the trauma of NKVD atrocities in Poland and western Ukraine, perhaps fueling pogroms (as in Lviv) and collaboration with Nazi extermination units. Indeed, in his review of Kiebuzinski and Motyl Thomas Chopard (link) takes the editors to task for their overly forgiving treatment of Ukrainian nationalism (OUN) and its anti-Semitic foundations:

On retrouve en filigrane la disculpation des mouvements nationalistes ukrainiens quant à leur antisémitisme ou leur participation aux violences antisémites, portée par le narratif ukrainien nationaliste contemporain. Ainsi qu’une ethnicisation à marche forcée des acteurs (des victimes comme des bourreaux), déjà à l’œuvre dans le discours nationaliste des années 1940. Les pogromistes sont renvoyés à leur individualité, masse indistincte et indocile. (Chopard, 710)

Explaining the Holocaust is hard enough, and assigning responsibility for mass murder, collaboration, and pogrom is an important ongoing task for the historian. But the prison massacres conducted by the NKVD in 1940 in western Ukraine — as well as the atrocious massacres in Katyn Forest in the prior year in Poland — must be recognized, investigated, and accounted for. And most importantly — nothing like them can be allowed to occur again. And yet here is a very specific reason to focus on those days in 1941 today. The rapes, torture, mutilations, and murder of the innocent that have been documented in Bucha today (link) are very similar in their horror to those atrocities that occurred at the orders of another Russian (Soviet) government in 1940 and 1941.

It is tempting to ask whether local memories, passed down in communities and families, of these unspeakable crimes by Russians against Ukrainians in 1941 — as well as memories of the Stalinist war of hunger against Ukraine in 1931-32 — are an important component of the fierce resistance and courage shown by Ukrainian people throughout the country today.

Infrastructures of evil

Politicians, generals, corporate directors, and ordinary men and women had a direct relationship to the evils of the twentieth century. Individuals, soldiers, CEOs, and government administrators did various things that we can now recognize as fundamentally evil. So we might be tempted to summarize the evils of the past as “large numbers of people doing inexcusable things to other people”. 

However, this formula is entirely insufficient. It is true that the great evils of the twentieth century were committed by individuals, but the evils they committed could not have been carried out without the workings of the large social systems that motivated them, organized them, and mobilized them. Armies, states, intelligence services, corporations, government agencies — all of these were part of the social and causal processes involved in the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the Armenian genocide, and the rape of Nanking. Moreover, these vast collective evils could not have occurred in the absence of supporting institutions and organizations. A Hitler or a Stalin ranting on a soapbox may be able to inspire a crowd of listeners to commit mayhem and pogroms through artful charisma, and violence may spread beyond the earshot of the original spark. (The Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 had some of this character.) But these kinds of collective violence are inherently episodic and limited — unlike the systematic, sustained, and determined murder of eastern European Jews by the Nazi state, or the despoliation and starvation of Ukrainian peasants by the Soviet state in 1932. It is all but axiomatic that largescale and sustained evil requires a strong institutional infrastructure.

It is true that individuals are the actors in history. And therefore it is true as well that we need the research of social psychologists — perhaps even new kinds of social psychology — to understand how ordinary people could come to commit mass murder against their neighbors and fellow human beings. This is one reason why the works of Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men and Jan Gross in Neighbors are so important: these historians throw the spotlight on the actions of “ordinary” participants in evil. But the lessons we learn from these studies are in one sense a dead end, if we are interested in making genocide impossible in the future: they demonstrate chiefly that “ordinary men and women” can be brought to commit atrocities against fellow human beings. This is a dead end in a specific sense: we might despair of ever changing this fact about human capacity for atrocious violence.

But this point invites us to broaden the lens a bit and ask about the institutional settings within which such evils are likely or unlikely to occur. What makes individuals more prone to act in an evil way against other persons? What kinds of “institutions of consciousness-shaping” prepare men and women for acts of murderous hate? How does propaganda — state-originated or Fox News — work to cultivate the inner worlds of individuals in such a way as to lead them to hate, despise, and fear other individuals? How are anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, racism, or anti-LGBTQ bigotry transmitted into the consciousness and thoughts of individuals in a society? How did radio broadcasts influence massacre in Rwanda (link)? And crucially — whose work is being carried out through those propaganda institutions? Who benefits from the cultivation of hate in a population?

A second important group of questions concerns how the diffuse antagonisms and hatreds of separate individuals get marshaled into effective collective action. What transforms a hateful population into a hate group capable of collective action? What are the local and regional informal social organizations through which the latent hate and antagonisms of certain individuals are brought together for plans of action — through neo-Nazi organizations in Europe, White Supremacist organizations in the US, right-wing extremist populist organizations throughout the world? How does Hindu nationalism become a disciplined force for violent action in India? The insurrection in the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 was not spontaneous; so how was it organized and mobilized?

We can also ask whether there are informal social organizations that can have the effect of reducing hate and antagonism — organizations that work within civil society and within specific communities to establish a basis of trust and mutual acceptance across racial, religious, or gender lines. Both sets of questions are very familiar within the literature of social contention, including McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention and McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency.

But we also must recognize that the most massive evils of the twentieth century were not self-organized riots, pogroms, or uprisings. Rather, they were the result of determined and documented state actions, carried out by intricate bureaucracies of murder and enslavement. So, for example, it is critical to understand the role that the NKVD played within the Soviet state in carrying out the Terror of the 1930s, the starvation campaign of the 1930s, and the deployment of the labor camps of the Gulag. How did the bureaucracy of murder and enslavement work in the Soviet state? Likewise, how were the policy decisions of the Wannsee Conference of 1942 carried out? (Adolph Eichmann served as recording secretary of the meeting; link.) How was the plan of mass murder transformed into Aktions, camps, alliances with collaborators, new mass killing techniques, railroad schedules, and deceptions? It seems evident that totalitarian states are well prepared to orchestrate evil on a mass scale.

Here again — are there political institutions that can make evil less likely? What are some of the political and legal arrangements that make mass murder and atrocity more difficult to carry out by a determined dictator? Timothy Snyder emphasizes in Black Earth that the Final Solution depended on “smashed states” and the destruction of the rule of law. Is this a clue for the future of humanity: that it is of the greatest importance to establish and defend the rule of law? 

These considerations suggest that intensive research in the social sciences is still needed to lay bare the workings of the organizations, agencies, and states of regimes that committed atrocious plans and actions. Political scientists, organizational theorists, and sociologists need to help us understand better the way in which many states in the twentieth century attempted and succeeded in committing atrocious and inexcusable actions against their neighbors and their own peoples. And can stronger national and international structures be designed that serve as real impediments to evil actions in the future?

These various questions about social and political institutions and their role within the “infrastructure of evil” are crucial if we are to envision a future in which evils like the Holodomor, the Gulag, or the Holocaust will not recur. The crucial point is the role of a secure and enforceable rule of law, embodying the rights of all individuals. If China had a secure system of individual rights and rule of law, would one million Uyghurs be in “re-education” camps today? If courageous Chinese lawyers and independent judges were able to compel the Chinese government to cease its actions against the Uyghurs, would this contemporary evil have ever come about? So we might say: to ensure that great evil does not recur in our futures, we need to strive courageously to maintain the institutions of law and constitution that constrain even the most awful would-be tyrants.

How will Russia’s fascist aggression end?

Ukraine has demonstrated a truly singular level of competence and commitment in its armed resistance to Russia’s war since February 24. Much credit goes to President Zelenskyy. And much of the world — including especially the NATO partners — have been decisive and forthcoming in material support for Ukraine’s ability to continue to resist, and to successfully destroy a remarkable fraction of Russia’s military forces. Powerful economic sanctions are playing a key role as well, putting meaningful economic pressure on Russia for its continuing aggression and atrocious acts of violence in Ukraine. 

It is plain that Russia’s longterm interests have already been very badly harmed by this war. There will be greater European energy independence, reducing a major source of Russian exports; there is a greatly strengthened commitment among NATO members for collective defense — as well as the possibility of Finland and Sweden’s accession to the organization; the economic relationships that have been broken with western companies will be hard or impossible to restore; and Russia has been shamed by an almost worldwide condemnation for its atrocious and aggressive war. Russia’s manufacturing sector has shown itself to be incapable of producing the high-technology components needed for its devices and weapons; and yet western sanctions are likely to make import of these components difficult for years to come. Russia is much worse off today than it was on February 23.

And yet it is difficult to see how this war will end. There is really only one satisfactory end: the withdrawal of Russian military forces from all Ukrainian territory, an end of the maritime blockade of Ukraine’s ports, and permanent ceasing of air, rocket, and artillery attacks agains targets in Ukraine. Some level of reparations for war damage to Ukraine’s cities would also be appropriate. Russia should not be rewarded in any way for its aggression; and Ukraine should not be forced to surrender territory to Russia to provide a face-saving exit for Russia’s leaders. 

However, it is all but inconceivable that Vladimir Putin would ever willingly decide to simply give up the war without some kind of military gain that can be described as a victory.

The plain truth seems to be that Putin is largely immune from pressure and consequences as a result of this war. He plainly does not care about the massive casualties suffered by his own forces — “cannon fodder”. He is content to write off the losses of tanks, artillery pieces, rockets, drones, and other materiel of war as simply the cost of pursuing important “national” goals. And Russian territory and population have been largely immune from the consequences of the war. Russia is not suffering attacks against its own cities, towns, military bases, airfields, or (with a very few exceptions) fuel depots. Russia is in a position to bring the catastrophic sufferings of war to the Ukrainian people through long-range artillery, missiles, and air strikes in a way that is without any possible reply for the Ukrainian forces. So the logic of reciprocity and deterrence does not find a foothold in this conflict: Russia’s horrific actions against Kiev, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other towns and cities have no reciprocal cost for Russia. The war does not exist for most Russian citizens, and therefore Russian citizens do not care very much about the war.

Here is the most basic point: the forces that make costly war difficult to sustain in an institutionalized democracy are entirely lacking in the contemporary Russian political and economic system. Russia is a dictatorship, and Vladimir Putin is its uncompromising dictator. (Timothy Snyder provides an accounting of the ways in which contemporary Russia is a fascist state; link.) Fundamental decisions about the war rest with Putin alone — in fact, recent reports suggest that Putin even attempts to manage mid-level tactical decisions as well. There are no effective institutional restraints on Putin’s decision-making. He appears to have secure control of the military and the security services, and there is almost no evidence of open disagreement or opposition with the military or political elites about Putin’s actions. It does not seem likely that senior generals have the power to compel Putin to change course; and the political institutions of the Russian Federation plainly leave Putin entirely unfettered. Just as Hitler terrorized and dominated the senior commanders of the Wehrmacht, so Putin seems to have complete and unilateral power over his generals.

So the kinds of processes that have led to a change of direction in decisions of war and peace in other countries — for example, President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, whose conduct of the war in Vietnam led to mass political protest and rising opposition among legislators in his own party, and who was brought down as president by these forces — those processes of public opinion and independent centers of political power do not exist in Russia. Having crushed the institutions and organizations of civil society, Putin is unhampered in his decision-making. Russian public opinion will not end the war; independent media will not end the war; independent powerful political figures will not end the war; and it is now apparent that the oligarchs will not end the war. 

So it comes back to Putin: what could motivate or incentivize Putin to make the decision to end the war and withdraw? He has plainly invested his prestige, reputation, and self-image (hyper-masculine bare-chested warrior) in being successful in this war. He is determined to be perceived as a successful historical figure changing the role of his country in world affairs. He plainly refuses the humiliation that would follow from defeat. So no considerations of “costs and benefits of continuing the war” will influence him. Rather, his decisions have to do with his own interests, property, and self-image. Putin’s psychology seems to be similar to Hitler’s when it comes to making decisions about war and peace.

But is there a “Godfather” strategy available? Is there any group of powerful figures in Russia, behind the scenes, who could make an offer that Putin cannot refuse? If so, then possibly we might imagine a change of direction. Here is how it might play out in the Netflix miniseries: “We have a choice for you, Vladimir. You can step down as president and keep your wealth (in the Western idiom, perhaps you are resigning to spend more time with your family); or we will depose you, prosecute you for the many acts of corruption that you have committed, and strip you of your wealth. You may even go to prison. So here is the choice: exit now and take the golden parachute; or refuse, and lose everything.” We might call this the “Marcos” strategy.

The problem with this scenario is evident. It requires a coalition of individuals who are collectively more powerful than Putin, and who can credibly threaten to remove him. And at present, that seems all but impossible.

Another scenario is more feasible but grossly less acceptable: Russian forces manage to occupy and secure a larger portion of eastern and southern Ukraine; the Ukrainian government decides that the continuing suffering of its citizens must be brought to an end and therefore accepts a territorial settlement; and Putin announces a historic victory. Putin’s self-esteem is saved; many thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or maimed, and many thousands of civilians and soldiers in Ukraine have been killed; vast swaths of destruction have been inflicted on Ukraine during months of atrocious fighting; and Ukraine loses part of its sovereign territory. Not a very good outcome, from any point of view except Putin’s.

Is there a third possible scenario — unambiguous military victory for Ukraine? Given the imbalance of population and national wealth between the two countries, it is hard to see how Ukraine can continue to wage a war of attrition indefinitely, to the point where Russia is forced to withdraw unilaterally. However, there is a precedent in the Soviet Union’s abrupt exit from Afghanistan. (The analogy is not entirely apt, given that the USSR was then led by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, a figure quite unlike Vladimir Putin.) The current rate of destruction of Russian military forces is unsustainable for the Russians; so it is not entirely inconceivable that Russia would turn its positions over to friendly “militias”, declare victory, and withdraw its regular military forces. 

Incitement of violence by far-right media networks

The sickening tragedy of Buffalo yesterday — the racist attack on a group of African-American shoppers and workers by an 18-year-old white supremacist man in body armor, carrying a military-style weapon — is simply too much to absorb. This is indisputably an act of domestic terrorism; and yet our police and federal counter-terrorism agencies are still woefully behind in taking the threats of racist violence seriously. Where is Homeland Security when it comes to protecting African-Americans, Muslims, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and Jewish people against a rising tide of racist attacks? (Here is a Brookings report on the state of right-wing terrorism in America; link.) We are forced to ask ourselves, how many other “true believers” in the Great Replacement theory and other memes of white supremacy are out there, contemplating their own acts of racist violence?

But here is a question that must be confronted: how did violent white supremacy become mainstream in America? How did racist antagonism and fear-mongering become something more than shameful and marginal mutterings by fringe extremists? And more specifically, what role do Fox News and Tucker Carlson play in the shameful tragedy that took place in Buffalo this week?

The answer seems to be: a very extensive role. Carlson’s advocacy of the supposed catastrophe of “the Great Replacement” has reverberated throughout this country and in other parts of the world. As the recent and rigorous New York Times study documents (link), Carlson’s program is deliberate in its stoking of racial fear and hatred among its three million viewers. Here is part of the assessment offered in the Times series:

To channel their fear into ratings, Mr. Carlson has adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists, who have watched gleefully from the fringes of public life as he popularizes their ideas. Mr. Carlson sometimes refers to “legacy Americans,” a dog-whistle term that, before he began using it on his show last fall, appeared almost exclusively in white nationalist outlets like The Daily Stormer, The New York Times found. He takes up story lines otherwise relegated to far-right or nativist websites like VDare: “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has featured a string of segments about the gruesome murders of white farmers in South Africa, which Mr. Carlson suggested were part of a concerted campaign by that country’s Black-led government. Last April, Mr. Carlson set off yet another uproar, borrowing from a racist conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement” to argue that Democrats were deliberately importing “more obedient voters from the third world” to “replace” the current electorate and keep themselves in power. But a Times analysis of 1,150 episodes of his show found that it was far from the first time Mr. Carlson had done so. (link)

The alleged Buffalo assailant’s manifesto seems to follow this script of “great replacement” and white supremacy very closely. The manifesto is explicit on these points (link). So the connection seems evident — message disseminated, message received, violence committed.

Milan Obaidi, Jonas Kunst, Simon Ozer and Sasha Y. Kimel make a strong sociological argument for the connection between “great replacement” myths and racist violence in “The ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy: How the perceived ousting of Whites can evoke violent extremism and Islamophobia” (link). These researchers document the role this meme has played in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim populism in European states:

In recent years, the “Great Replacement” conspiracy has not only gained prominence among right-wing extremists but has also found a foot- hold among right-wing populist political parties in Europe. For example, while evoking anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, such ideas have been espoused by the former leader of the Danish People’s Party Pia Kjærsgaard, the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán, the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and the leader of the far-right movement Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen (Alduy, 2017; Kingsley, 2019; Kjærsgaard, 2020). Various conservative intellectuals and far-right organizations have also utilized language that stokes fear about the decline of the “White race” and “White identity.” For instance, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, Mark Steyn, a prominent proponent of “Eurabia” (i.e., a term coined to describe an alleged Islamization and Arabization of Europe), claimed that by the year 2025 “Europe will be 40 percent Muslim and much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century” (Steyn quoted in Carr, 2006; see also Steyn, 2005). Meanwhile, anti-Muslim organizations such as the German PEGIDA movement and the European White-nativist movement Generation Identity (GI) have espoused similar views. For example, GI—one of Europe’s fastest growing far-right movements that advocates for an ethnically and culturally homogenous Europe—portrays immigrants as invaders while playing a prominent role in promoting, popularizing, and disseminating the “Great Replacement” conspiracy (Cox & Meisel, 2018; Feder & Maplestone, 2019). (link)

Based on their survey-based study, they find that there is a causal connection between perceived replacement and willingness to act violently against members of the other group.

Perceived replacement of the autochthonous population was positively correlated with willingness to violently persecute Muslims, violent intentions, Islamophobia, as well as symbolic and realistic threat perceptions (see Table 1). Moreover, both types of threats were related to Muslim persecution and Islamophobia. However, only symbolic threat was associated with violent intentions. (link)

Now–back to America. Tucker Carlson now finds it expedient to use the “Great Replacement” meme to crystallize the fears and antagonisms of his followers — again, a finding well documented in the New York Times series cited above. It seems all too obvious that this is a potent causal factor in the rise of activist white supremacist individuals and organizations. And, coincidentally, our country is witnessing a horrifying rise in violent attacks on people of color.    

What are some of the means available to those who care about democracy and equality for combatting this resurgent white supremacy and the violence it so recklessly engenders? Electing politicians who demonstrate their commitment to our democratic values is one response, but not a very rapid or targeted cure.

Is there another possibility deriving from civil liability? Is it possible to make use of civil lawsuits against the purveyors of false and hateful theories that inspire other individuals to commit acts of violence? In the Lawfare blog Alexander Vindman raises the possibility of using civil lawsuits to prevent the harms purveyed by right-wing media and personalities, including defamation and (one might speculate) encouragement of violence (link). Consider the example of the lawsuit successfully undertaken by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1981 against United Klans of America for the murder of Michael Donald by two klansmen. Success in this lawsuit led to bankruptcy and dissolution of this branch of the Ku Klux Klan (link).

Can the victims and their survivors of the Buffalo atrocity hold Tucker Carlson and Fox News at least partially responsible for the racist murders committed on May 14? Would $1 billion be an appropriate civil damage finding for the harm done by this reckless and immoral racism on a highly influential media channel? Would Fox News then find it prudent to eliminate the racist hatred it channels on its network if it were faced with such a judgment?

And what about the advertisers who continue to provide millions in ad revenue to Fox News? Can these companies at last be brought to recognize the shame of their support for racist hate mongering, and withdraw their support? If not, should not consumers look at these companies as complicit in the rising tide of racist violence in America? Here is a call for “defunding Fox News” (link) that identifies the top advertisers on Fox: GlaxoSmithKline, Liberty Mutual, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Intuit, NortonLifeLock, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Progressive, Charles Schwab, Toyota, and Subaru. GM, P&G, Subaru — do you really want to align yourself with racism and anti-democratic lies and the rising tide of violence that accompanies these pathologies?

(Here is a New York Times article on the background of segregation in Buffalo; link.)

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