Chomsky on the "Black Book"

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at SPAMdojo.tao.ca
Wed Jan 26 04:01:52 MST 2000


Millennial Visions and Selective Vision Part One
By Noam Chomsky

The new year opened with familiar refrains, amplified by the
numerology: a
chorus of self-adulation, somber ruminations about the incomprehensible
evil
of our enemies, and the usual recourse to selective amnesia to smooth
the
way. A few illustrations follow, which may suggest the kind of
evaluation
that would have appeared, were different values to prevail in the
intellectual culture.

Let's begin with the familiar litany about the monsters we have
confronted
through the century and finally slain, a ritual that at least has the
merit
of roots in reality. Their awesome crimes are recorded in the
newly-translated _Black Book of Communism_ by French scholar Stephane
Courtois and others, the subject of shocked reviews at the transition
to
the
new millennium. The most serious, at least of those I have seen, is by
political philosopher Alan Ryan, a distinguished academic scholar and
social
democratic commentator, in the year's first issue of the New York Times
Book
Review (Jan 2).

The _Black Book_ at last breaks "the silence over the horrors of
Communism,"
Ryan writes, "the silence of people who are simply baffled by the
spectacle
of so much absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable suffering."
The
revelations of the book will doubtless come as a surprise to those who
have
somehow managed to remain unaware of the stream of bitter denunciations
and
detailed revelations of the "horrors of Communism" that I have been
reading
since childhood, notably in the literature of the left for the past 80
years, not to speak of the steady flow in media and journals, film,
libraries overflowing with books that range from fiction to
scholarship... -- all unable to lift the veil of silence. But put that
aside.

The _Black Book_, Ryan writes, is in the style of a "recording angel."
It
is
a relentless "criminal indictment" for the murder of 100 million
people,
"the body count of a colossal, wholly failed social, economic,
political
and
psychological experiment." The total evil, unredeemed by even a hint of
achievement anywhere, makes a mockery of "the observation that you
can't
make an omelet without broken eggs."

The vision of our own magnificence alongside the incomprehensible
monstrosity of the enemy -- the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy"
(John
F. Kennedy) dedicated to "total obliteration" of any shred of decency
in
the
world (Robert McNamara) -- recapitulates in close detail the imagery of
the
past half century (actually, well beyond, though friends and enemies
rapidly
shift, to the present). Apart from a huge published literature and the
commercial media, it is captured vividly in the internal document NSC
68
of
1950, widely recognized as the founding document of the Cold War but
rarely
quoted, perhaps out of embarrassment at the frenzied and hysterical
rhetoric
of the respected statesmen Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze; for a sample,
see
my
_Deterring Democracy_, chap. 1.

The picture has always been an extremely useful one. Renewed once again
today, it allows us to erase completely the entire record of hideous
atrocities compiled by "our side" in past years. After all, they count
as
nothing when compared with the ultimate evil of the enemy. However
grand
the
crime, it was "necessary" to confront the forces of darkness, now
finally
recognized for what they were. With only the faintest of regrets, we
can
therefore turn to the fulfillment of our noble mission, though as New
York
Times correspondent Michael Wines reminded us in the afterglow of the
humanitarian triumph in Kosovo, we must not overlook some "deeply
sobering
lessons": "the deep ideological divide between an idealistic New World
bent
on ending inhumanity and an Old World equally fatalistic about unending
conflict." The enemy was the incarnation of total evil, but even our
friends
have a long way to go before they ascend to our dizzying heights.
Nonetheless, we can march forward, "clean of hands and pure of heart,"
as
befits a Nation under God. And crucially, we can dismiss with ridicule
any
foolish inquiry into the institutional roots of the crimes of the
state-corporate system, mere trivia that in no way tarnish the image of
Good
versus Evil, and teach no lessons, "deeply sobering" or not, about what
lies
ahead -- a very convenient posture, for reasons to obvious to
elaborate.

Like others, Ryan reasonably selects as Exhibit A of the criminal
indictment
the Chinese famines of 1958-61, with a death toll of 25-40 million, he
reports, a sizeable chunk of the 100 million corpses the "recording
angels"
attribute to "Communism" (whatever that is, but let us use the
conventional
term). The terrible atrocity fully merits the harsh condemnation it has
received for many years, renewed here. It is, furthermore, proper to
attribute the famine to Communism. That conclusion was established most
authoritatively in the work of economist Amartya Sen, whose comparison
of
the Chinese famine to the record of democratic India received
particular
attention when he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago.

Writing in the early 1980s, Sen observed that India had suffered no
such
famine. He attributed the India-China difference to India's "political
system of adversarial journalism and opposition," while in contrast,
China's
totalitarian regime suffered from "misinformation" that undercut a
serious
response, and there was "little political pressure" from opposition
groups
and an informed public (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, _Hunger and Public
Action_, 1989; they estimate deaths at 16.5 to 29.5 million).
The example stands as a dramatic "criminal indictment" of totalitarian
Communism, exactly as Ryan writes. But before closing the book on the
indictment we might want to turn to the other half of Sen's India-China
comparison, which somehow never seems to surface despite the emphasis
Sen
placed on it. He observes that India and China had "similarities that
were
quite striking" when development planning began 50 years ago, including
death rates. "But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity,
mortality
and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over
India"
(in education and other social indicators as well). He estimates the
excess
of mortality in India over China to be close to 4 million a year:
"India
seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight
years
than China put there in its years of shame," 1958-1961 (Dreze and Sen).
In both cases, the outcomes have to do with the "ideological
predispositions" of the political systems: for China, relatively
equitable
distribution of medical resources, including rural health services, and
public distribution of food, all lacking in India. This was before
1979,
when "the downward trend in mortality [in China] has been at least
halted,
and possibly reversed," thanks to the market reforms instituted that
year.

Overcoming amnesia, suppose we now apply the methodology of the _Black
Book_
and its reviewers to the full story, not just the doctrinally
acceptable
half. We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist
"experiment" since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire
history
of
the "colossal, wholly failed...experiment" of Communism everywhere
since
1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in
India
alone.

The "criminal indictment" of the "democratic capitalist experiment"
becomes
harsher still if we turn to its effects after the fall of Communism:
millions of corpses in Russia, to take one case, as Russia followed the
confident prescription of the World Bank that "Countries that
liberalize
rapidly and extensively turn around more quickly [than those that do
not],"
returning to something like what it had been before World War I, a
picture
familiar throughout the "third world." But "you can't make an omelet
without
broken eggs," as Stalin would have said. The indictment becomes far
harsher
if we consider these vast areas that remained under Western tutelage,
yielding a truly "colossal" record of skeletons and "absolutely futile,
pointless and inexplicable suffering" (Ryan). The indictment takes on
further force when we add to the account the countries devastated by
the
direct assaults of Western power, and its clients, during the same
years.
The record need not be reviewed here, though it seems to be as unknown
to
respectable opinion as were the crimes of Communism before the
appearance
of
the _Black Book_.
The authors of the _Black Book_, Ryan observes, did not shrink from
confronting the "great question": "the relative immorality of Communism
and
Nazism." Although "the body count tips the scales against Communism,"
Ryan
concludes that Nazism nevertheless sinks to the lower depths of
immorality.
Unasked is another "great question" posed by "the body count," when
ideologically serviceable amnesia is overcome.

To make myself clear, I am not expressing my judgments; rather those
that
follow from the principles that are employed to establish preferred
truths -- or that would follow, if doctrinal filters could be removed.

On the self-adulation, a virtual tidal wave this year -- perhaps it is
enough to recall Mark Twain's remark about one of the great military
heroes
of the mass slaughter campaign in the Philippines that opened the
glorious
century behind us: he is "satire incarnated"; no satirical rendition
can
"reach perfection" because he "occupies that summit himself." The
reference
reminds us of another aspect of our magnificence, apart from efficiency
in
massacre and destruction and a capacity for self-glorification that
would
drive any satirist to despair: our willingness to face up honestly to
our
crimes, a tribute to the flourishing free market of ideas. The bitter
anti-imperialist essays of one of America's leading writers were not
suppressed, as in totalitarian states; they are freely available to the
general public, with a delay of only some 90 years.





--
Macdonald Stainsby

check the "ten point platform" of Tao at: http://new.tao.ca

"`Order rules in Berlin.' You stupid lackeys! Your
`order' is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rear
ahead once more and announce to your horror amid the brass
of trumpets: `I was, I am, I always will be!'"

-Rosa Luxemburg, 1918.







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