History is not the case against collectivism

In an analysis of a newspaper article by David Brooks on China and collectivism, Mark writes

When we consider criticisms of Collectivism, we almost automatically associate it with the past experiences of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism, and how the societies based on these collectivist systems we’ve seen have either failed or stagnated.

Taleb calls history a fallacy and history is the only case against Collectivism.

In my previous post I mentioned that the critics of Collectivism and Individualism seem to have a common fear: that of society degenerating to serve the interests of a minority. This suggests that both lines of thought are capable of creating that horror.

Thankfully, what David’s article shows is that just as importantly: both lines of thought are just as possibly capable of creating a better world instead.
(Empasis mine, links added)

I will write on collectivism later. This post is about the role of history in evaluating it.

Consider my knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union. I learnt a little about Lenin and the 1917 revolution in school. I read a few Russian stories in my childhood. I read some references to the Soviet Union in some American novels. I picked up information about its political collapse and disintegration in newspapers and by hearing my parents talk about it (I was far too young to understand much of it at the time). I read a few entries in Wikipedia during my college years. I also must have picked up some information from several assorted sources which I do not remember now. Note that none of this knowledge is first hand. I believe that most of it is true because any given concrete fact is “verifiable” in principle. More importantly, however, most (almost all) of my knowledge involves written records made by someone else. Even if I do not doubt the veracity of these records, the records are selective – selected by someone’s judgement of what is significant and what is not. Any historical knowledge (especially about events that occurred long ago) is at best a selective record created by several peoples’ perception and judgement. And history in itelf does not help me to reach any firm conclusions. For that, I have to integrate the historical record with a relevant theory of cause and effect. At best history can serve as part of the empirical observations that lead to a such a theory.

Consider an evaluation of communism. To reach a conclusion about whether communism is a proper political system, I first need a vision of what a proper political system should look like – what sort of relationships between men it should enable and what sort it should prohibit. Note that any such vision necessarily has a moral aspect to it. What sort of relationships between men I regard as proper depends on the moral values I want to achieve. My political vision of liberty is inextricably tied to my moral values of rationality and independence. And moral values are not derived from history. Given that my political vision is liberty, I don’t need any knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union to decide if communism “works”. Even if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating an economically egalitarian system at gunpoint, it wouldn’t “work” for me. I remember David Brooks writing something to the effect that “Communism failed because people stopped believing in it.” While there is much that I disagree with in that statement, it has an important element of truth. The mass poverty, the Gulags, the brutal suppression of all dissent, the famines, the economic failures don’t count as failure. If they did, communism probably failed in its first five years. The Soviet Union dictators and the communists who helped them stay in power were not deterred by these. They considered these things as necessities to achieve their ideals. As long as a sufficient number of people still held these ideals as absolute, the Soviet Union didn’t “fail”. The element of truth in Brooks statement is: Moral ideals shape history – not the other way round. What the statement does not acknowledge is: Moral ideals are not arbitrary. Some are impossible to achieve, no matter how strongly one believes in them. Communism would fail irrespective of what anyone believed about it.

The point is that political ideals are based not on history but on morality. A choice of political ideals cannot be made by some kind of a cost-benefit analysis of historical records. Consider an analogy in software. The industry has reached a consensus that there are great benefits to creating web-enabled software and spends a lot of resources in achieving it. Making complex software web-enabled is no easy task but the costs do not deter anyone since the end is desirable. The desirability of the end is independent of the costs. It is the same with politics. If the end (say egalitarianism) is seen as desirable, all the costs (in human life and liberty) can be easily shrugged off. But David Brooks and Mark seem to have no clear political vision. They have probably inherited the values of rights and privacy from the Western culture. And they have also inherited the altruist and egalitarian ideals that are ubiquitous today without realizing that these values are mutually exclusive. And that is where the emergence of China gives rise to cognitive dissonance. All this while they have been secure in the knowledge that a nominally capitalist and confused individualist political system (such as the ones in the West) is the best way to achieve their mixed bag of ideals. After all they have seen that consistent collectivist political systems do not “work”. They had history behind them. Now that China with a nominally communist and confused collectivist political system has achieved some economic success, their sense of security is lost. History now gives them no guidance. Their acknowledgement of cognitive dissonance is a confession of collectivism. Why do I call it a confession? Because they don’t like it themselves. Note the last line in Brooke’s article “It’s [Collectivism] certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”

The struggle between collectivism and individualism is primarily a moral one. The case against collectivism (atleast my case) is not based on history. What is it based on? I will present that in my next post.

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6 Responses

  1. ^ I definitely agree with your insights. I remember a saying that goes: in war, history is written by the victors–and this is precisely the reason why a historical criticism of any principle is only a partial case at best.

  2. I also just realized, that a system/ideal can be judged from a moral standpoint separately from a history: then is it possible for an ideology that is inferior from a moral standpoint to actually succeed in history?

    You mentioned altruism and egalitarianism–which are accepted forms of ideology today. What to make of these ideas?

  3. Totally agree. Very good article. (Sorry, got nothing constructive to add myself, just wanted you to know).

  4. I agree with your comments. I myself never studied much of the Russian history, but I have a little idea about collectivism through some of the books I’ve read (mainly The Objectivist by Ayn Rand). Your article reminded me of this line which is from “Philosophy: Who needs it” by Ayn Rand :
    The advocates of collectivism are motivated not by a desire for men’s happiness, but by hatred for man . . . hatred of the good for being the good; . . . the focus of that hatred, the target of its passionate fury, is the man of ability.

  5. Mark,
    Great question. I have a post here in response.

    As to altruism and egalitarianism, I despise both.
    I have written a post previously on egalitarianism. I am in the process of writing a series of posts on altruism, how widespread it is in the culture, and what consequences it has. Here is the first post in that series.

  6. Sindhu,
    You should read “We The Living” to understand why Ayn Rand held such a strong view against collectivism.

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