Freedom Stands Above Everything
Is it possible to learn of the dangers to freedom and human progress without first living through our own bitter experiences?
There are those, such as Boston University professor Ibram Kendi, who say that any differences in outcomes between racial groups is the result of racism. Kendi is fond of broad definitions. If you support anything “through [your] actions or inaction” that Kendi claims leads to “racial inequity,” you are a racist. Racism, Kendi informs us in his book How to Be an Antiracist, is bonded to free markets:
To love capitalism is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism. The conjoined twins are two sides of the same destructive body. The idea that capitalism is merely free markets, competition, free trade, supplying and demanding, and private ownership of the means of production operating for a profit is as whimsical and ahistorical as the White-supremacist idea that calling something racist is the primary form of racism. Popular definitions of capitalism, like popular racist ideas, do not live in historical or material reality. Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist. They were birthed together from the same unnatural causes, and they shall one day die together from unnatural causes.
Were free markets extinguished, all decisions would be political, freedom would be snuffed out, and millions would be enslaved.
Budding revolutionaries, like Kendi, may imagine themselves as heroes of the new republic they hope to create. Kendi’s naïve supporters may think, I’m one of the good guys. I’ll keep or enhance my position in society, and the problems I perceive will be fixed. They will be in for a rude awakening.
As F. A. Hayek explains, in free markets human beings adjust to “the blind forces of the social process” as they engage in their pursuits. The alternative is to endure coercive political processes. Hayek explains coercion is not the more palatable alternative:
So long as he knows only the hard discipline of the market, he may well think the direction by some other intelligent human brain preferable; but, when he tries it, he soon discovers that the former still leaves him at least some choice, while the latter leaves him none, and that it is better to have a choice between several unpleasant alternatives than being coerced into one.
If they weren’t ahistorical, the naïve would know that the revolution they support will be unpredictable and indiscriminate about who it destroys.
Admittedly, for some, Hayek’s analysis of political and economic forces can be dry. They may find more riveting the historical account of the triumph of politics over economics in the Soviet era brought to life by the dissident Vasily Grossman in his novel Everything Flows.
Grossman explored the “complete inhumanity” of the Bolshevik revolutionaries: “They began to build a State such as the world had never seen. Cruelty, murders, deprivations of every kind—all this was of no account. It was, after all, being carried out in the name of Russia and laboring humanity, in the name of the happiness of the working people.”
Their philosophy was inherently contradictory: “They had no doubt that the new world was being built for the people. It did not trouble them that it was the people themselves—the workers, the peasants, the intelligentsia—who constituted the most insuperable obstacle to the building of this new world.”
For the true believers, the revolution “was the happiest, most romantic period of their life.” Yet, once the brutal Bolshevik revolution was completed, its terrible coercive power was used against many of those who fought for it:
[T]he prisons were filled with hundreds of thousands of people from the generation of the Revolution and the Civil War. It was they who had defended the Soviet State—they were both the fathers of this State and its children. And now it was they who were being taken into the prisons they had built for the enemies of the new Russia. They themselves had created the new order and endowed it with terrible power—and now this terrible chastising might, the might of dictatorship, was being unleashed against them. They themselves had forged the sword of the Revolution—and now this sword was falling on their heads. To many of them it seemed as if they had entered a time of chaos and insanity.
“Thoughtless obedience” was expected. Children were encouraged to denounce parents. For those who hunted imagined enemies of the State, their faith lay solely “in the mercilessness of the chastising hand of the great Stalin.” The agents of Stalin were told “you have neither father nor mother, neither brothers nor sisters. You have only the Party.”
A mere letter of denunciation was enough to trigger an arrest and destroy a life.
No one was protected from Stalinist purges. No one was safe, not the “secretaries of district and provincial Party committees; military commissars; heads of political sections; commanding officers of regiments, divisions, and entire armies; captains of ships; agronomists; writers; livestock specialists; officials from the Commissariat of Foreign Trade; engineers; ambassadors; Civil War partisans; public prosecutors; chairmen of factory committees; university professors.”
Grossman asks, “Why were they being forced to confess to crimes they had never committed? Why had they been declared enemies of the people? Why were they being cast out from the life they had built, the life they had defended in battle?” Today, many wonder why they are being labeled racists.
The revolutionaries had destroyed others “as fanatically and mercilessly as if they were rabid dogs.” Then the table was turned, and they “were being equated with those whom they hated and despised.”
Grossman explains, “Sometimes a former district Party committee secretary would end up in the same cell as the district Party committee secretary before him, whom he had himself unmasked as an enemy of the people; and then, a month later, yet another Party committee secretary from the same district would join them on the bedboards [in the prisons and Gulags].”
Imprisoned, they would be interrogated for 24 hours a day until they repeated “after the investigator the words, ‘I confess that, having become a paid agent of foreign intelligence, inspired by a ferocious hatred of everything Soviet, I was preparing to commit acts of terrorism against Soviet statesmen and at the same time supplying secret information.’”
Stalin’s plans had to be perceived as infallible, and so, when his plans failed, he found it necessary to concoct endless nonexistent conspirators: “By torturing them for days, weeks, months, and sometimes even whole years, the security organs compelled poor, tormented accountants, engineers, and agronomists to take part in theatrical productions, to play the roles of villains, foreign agents, terrorists, and saboteurs.”
The Triumph of Politics Over Economics
No one was safe, yet was something extraordinary being built amidst the reign of terror? The very question is ridiculous. Good can never come from hate and force, but some believe it can.
Recently, AIER’s Phil Magness exposed W. E. B. Du Bois for his willingness to trade off violence for his own version of progress. In 1940, Du Bois wrote of his assessment of what the Soviet Union “accomplished” and added, “I care not in the face of this accomplishment, they have murdered, suppressed thought and made ruthless war. With all they have accomplished more than they destroyed.”
Those who have been victims of communism would vehemently disagree with the idea that freedom must be sacrificed for society to progress. Grossman writes, “Human freedom stands above everything. There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom.”
Let Grossman reveal to you what form “progress” took:
Sometimes it seemed that the powerful energy with which these leaders of the new world were endowed—their iron wills and their capacity for boundless cruelty—was being expended to only one end: to force half-starving people to work with never a day off, beyond their strength, for beggarly pay, while being quartered in primitive barracks and paying every possible kind of tax, levy, loan, and assessment on a scale never before seen in history.
And nothing of value was being created via this slave labor:
But men were building what no man needed. All of these projects—the White Sea canal, the arctic mines, the railways constructed north of the Arctic Circle, the vast factories hidden in the Siberian taiga, the superpowerful hydroelectric power stations deep in the wilderness—were of no use to anyone. It often seemed that these factories, these canals and artificial seas in the desert were of no use even to the Soviet State, let alone to human beings. Sometimes it seemed that the only purpose of these vast constructions was to shackle millions of people with the shackles of labor.
In short, “The State created by Lenin and consolidated by Stalin was founded not on economics but on politics. It was politics that determined the content of Stalin’s five-year plans.” Grossman continues,
Every one of Stalin’s actions—as well as those of his Soviet of People’s Commissars, his GosPlan or State Planning Committee, his People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry, his People’s Commissariat of Agriculture, his Committee for Grain Procurements, his People’s Commissariat for Trade—constituted an absolute triumph of politics over economics.
Grossman doesn’t mention the Gosbank, the only bank in the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1991. Along with the Gossnab and the GosPlan, all economic decisions were centralized and administered by force. This was the complete triumph of politics over economics, and this is what some “reformers” want to bring to America today.
Stalin’s “huge factories, artificial seas, canals, and hydroelectric power stations [did]not serve people; they serve a State without freedom.” Today in America, individuals fear to speak. Schools indoctrinate rather than educate. Malinvestment in government subsidized energy destroys wealth. The population grows sicklier on a diet of subsidized junk food and medications from a crony pharmaceutical industry. This is America’s transforming into a society without freedom.
Grossman exposed how the State without freedom was administered: “The principle of the State without freedom did, in fact, require exactly this: that Stalin should make every decision himself, without exception. This, however, was physically impossible, and so questions of secondary importance were decided by Stalin’s trusted agents. And they always decided them in the same way—in the spirit of Stalin.”
“Trusted agents ‘in the spirit of Stalin’” became mini-Stalins. “No one dared argue [with them] since they spoke ‘in the name of Stalin-and-the-State.’” Grossman explains why “non-freedom” triumphed:
From the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, non-freedom triumphed—everywhere and in everything. Everywhere and in everything, freedom was killed. It was a victorious offensive, and it could never have been carried out without a great deal of bloodshed. Freedom, after all, is life; to overcome freedom, Stalin had to kill life.
The State as Master
The Stalinist State served no one but itself, “turning the [professed] socialist element into a mere wrapping, a verbal husk, an empty shell.” Grossman writes, “The State without freedom created a mock parliament; it created mock elections, mock trade unions, a mock society, and a mockery of social life.” Grossman explains:
Terror and dictatorship swallowed up their creators. The State, which had seemed to be a means, had now proved to be an end in itself. The people who had created this State had seen it as a means of realizing their ideals. It turned out, however, that their dreams and ideals had been a means employed by a great and terrible State. The State was no longer a servant but a grim autocrat. It was not the people who needed the Red Terror of 1919. It was not the people who did away with freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It was not the people who needed the death of millions of peasants—most of the people, after all, were peasants. It was not the people who chose, in 1937, to fill the prisons and camps. It was not the people who needed the murderous deportations, the resettlement in Siberia and Central Asia, of the Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Balkars, Chechens, and Volga Germans, of Russified Bulgarians and Greeks. Nor was it the people who destroyed the workers’ right to strike or the peasants’ right to sow what they chose. It was not the people who added huge taxes to the price of consumer goods.
Without freedom, Grossman writes, “a man cannot sow what he wants to sow. A man is not the master of the field on which he works; he is not the owner of the apple trees he grows or of the milk he produces. Whatever the earth bears, it bears according to the instructions of the State without freedom.”
Grossman pointedly concludes, “The evolution of the West was fertilized by the growth of freedom; Russia’s evolution was fertilized by the growth of slavery. This is the abyss that divides Russia and the West.”
Progress only occurs as freedom grows. Grossman explains: “The history of humanity is the history of human freedom. The growth of human potentiality is expressed, above all, in the growth of freedom… Progress, in essence, is the progress of human freedom. What is life itself, if not freedom? The evolution of life is the evolution of freedom.”
Grossman writes “that the State was afraid to take a step without invoking the name of freedom and democracy, bears witness to the strength of freedom.” To revoke freedom, public opinion had to be manipulated. Today in America, politicians following Stalin’s playbook tell us they are saving democracy as they destroy rights.
Despite being on the frontlines of the horrors of communism and Nazism, Grossman remained optimistic. There is, he believed, a “natural and indestructible aspiration toward freedom:”
No matter how vast the skyscrapers and powerful the cannon, no matter how limitless the power of the State, no matter how mighty the empire, all this is only mist and fog and—as such—will be blown away. Only one true force remains; only one true force continues to evolve and live; and this force is liberty. To a man, to live means to be free. No, not everything that is real is rational.
Grossman writes, “Everything inhuman is senseless and useless.” The State without freedom produces non-stop inhumanity.
Read Grossman. He will cure you forever of the idea that you can reach a “noble” goal by taking away someone else’s freedom and not have the beast you create destroy you.
Grossman’s curriculum was forged from bitter experience; he bore witness to human misery as politics triumphed over all else and freedom was extinguished. The lessons he teaches have universal application.
Can the transformation of America to a “State without freedom” be stopped? Is it possible to learn of the dangers to freedom and human progress without first living through our own bitter experiences? Do enough of us believe, as Grossman did, that “freedom stands above everything” or will we sacrifice freedom to fit in with popular illiberal forces? Does not everything depend on our answers to these questions?
This essay was originally published at the American Institute for Economic Research.
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