Bryan Caplan  

Most Monolithic

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Murray Rothbard - as well as many of the New Left Cold War revisionists who inspired him - heavily ridiculed the view that the Communist movement was "monolithic."  Like other movements, they point out, Communists quarelled, formed factions, ignore chains of command, and had schisms.

I say they're just attacking a straw man.  Of course the Communist movement wasn't perfectly monolithic.  But wasn't it extremely monolithic nonetheless?  My challenge for them - and Econlog readers: Name one major international movement in the 20th-century - or all of human history for that matter - that was more monolithic than Communism between 1925 and 1956.

Please show your work.

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COMMENTS (30 to date)
liberty writes:

Western liberalism? (or "capitalist imperialism" as its often called by its dissenters)

Daniel Kuehn writes:

To what end, precisely?

Is the point of the Cold War New Left that Communism is less monolithic than some other movement, or is their point that even though they are the most monolithic you would still be woefully mistaken and mislead to treat them as if they were monolithic?

I suppose I'm just concerned because as far as I'm concerned you're exactly right, and thus nobody will be able to disprove you, which leads me to wonder where you're going next with it. Do we address these New Left scholars as competitors in a pissing contest or as guys cautioning against bad historiography no matter who wins the superlative (presumably it would be the Communists, as you suggest).

Prakhar Goel writes:

Easy: National Socialism.

wlu2009 writes:

What about Roman Catholocism in Europe pre-Luther?

Grant Gould writes:

The narcissism of small differences, as well as ordinary availability bias, means that movements you disagree with will always look unified and movements you like (or are a part of) will appear hopelessly schismatic and confused.

Find a movement you like even less than international Communism. You will likely find that you think it was more unified.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

I think we're going to run into a knowledge problem here. To those outside these movements, they are very likely to appear monolithic, so to really decide how monolithic they were, we'd have to be a part of the movement. Second, how to we measure monolithicity?

Some counter examples to those mentioned:

Western liberalism- Unless you have a specific time period in mind that I am missing, it seems that history is FULL of western liberals engaged in in-fighting.

National Socialism - This one got me at first but then I remembered that although the Brown-Shirt SAs were instrumental in the rise of the Nazi in Germany, they were summarily destroyed by the party after it rose to power. That seems like a pretty big rift.

Roman Catholicism - The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy from 1309 to 1378 represents a time when there was not one but TWO popes, and yes even THREE at one point. Also, the Eastern Orthodox church split in the 1050s, well before Luther. The Church didn't get established formally until around 400 and there were a large amount of heretics that formed various splinter groups.

Dave Schuler writes:

Is there a unit of measure for being monolithic? Isn't something either monolithic or not monolithic?

Stephan writes:


David R. Henderson writes:

No, I won't, because Daniel Kuehn makes the relevant point. I haven't read Murray's book, but I knew him and his other work well, and he was always making the point that there were major schisms between and among Communist countries. That's all he needed for his argument. He wasn't making a comparative point. So think Soviet Union vs. Romania, Soviet Union vs. Tito's Yugoslavia, Vietnam vs. Cambodia, China vs. Vietnam, Soviet Union vs. China.

Hyena writes:

Monolithic how?

Ethnic nationalism was extremely monolithic in that it was a single, globe-spanning ideology in the post-war period. It animated a lot of 20th century history and its adherents never wavered in their rationales or talking points but it also lacked the comprehensive structure and depth of communism.

OneEyedMan writes:

The Mormons?

liberty writes:

I was sort of being snide/ironic in my above choice (western liberalism), but I gotta say that one above all else wins in this thread: Catholicism.

It would be difficult to be more monolithic than that! (And the few rifts mentioned above only make this point clearer--over 1600 years, that's all you've got?!)

Doc Merlin writes:

There are factions within Roman Catholicism, but yah, its way more monolithic than just about anything I can think of.

darjen writes:

Not sure about the mormons. There are a large number of related groups who have heritage from the mormon scriptures. Much more than the salt lake city group would like you to believe.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

Yes, that's all I've got.

To recap: The loss of HALF the Church in 1050 with the Great Schism, the existence of TWO leaders of the church for over 100 years (imagine if we had 2 presidents? Stalin and Mao had trouble getting along, but these 2 Popes openly preached that the other was going to Hell), and open war between Catholics and the new Protestants following Luther.

I can't recall any open conflict between Communist countries during the period mentioned.

Certainly a group is monolithic if we look at a modern group and then follow it backward through history. It appears that there are no conflicts between Catholics because if there is a conflict, one group breaks off and makes its own church. However, we should really view all conflicts between Christians as conflicts between Catholics and Former-Catholics.

Yancey Ward writes:

The New York Yankees.

And in support of G. Gould's point.

Ryan Vann writes:

Industrialization was and is much more pervasive, which I think is a better term to use here than monolithic, as communism isn't uniform among the various practicing states.

Steve writes:

As Sumner reminds us, liberalization is the biggest untold story of the last quarter of the 20th century. It happened all around the world in a fairly similar fashion. Doesn't that make it monolithic?

Bob Murphy writes:

Evangelical Christians?


Mainstream biologists?

Bryan, I think you need to set more parameters.

Doc Merlin writes:

@Bob Murphy:

Evangelicals are far less monolithic than communists, the other two are possibly correct.

John Fast writes:

I tend to agree with Prakhar Goel and Kevin Driscoll. Also with Bob Murphy. Dave Schuler, we can replace "monolithic" with "unified" or "coordinated" or "disciplined" if you want to use comparative rather than uncomparable terminology.

Bryan -- or anyone else -- how would you measure unity of a movement?

Bob Murphy writes:

I thought of some more:

* Mathematicians

* Particle physicists

* Chess masters

* Advocates of the "fair tax"

Tracy W writes:

Steve - as a NZer, I'd say that while Roger Douglas (Labour) and Ruth Richardson (National) could both be described as liberal reformers, they were distinctly different to each other, and were in the right parties for them. Roger Douglas was a "use markets to create wealth then use broad-based low-rate taxes to redistribute", Ruth Richardson was a "don't redistribute, self-reliance is important" type.

Matt Flipago writes:

I think Mathematicians win, the amount of in fighting is much less, and the amount that is, isn't really saying the other side is irrational. There are ideas on that differ on what will be proved, based not on proofs. But they aren't really a movement.

Particle physics, way off I'd say, interpretation of quantum mechanics is all over the place.

The most monolithic movement, what about the Fascist Japanese, don't have much evidence. Also Islamic Fundamentalist maybe, no work shown for either.

Ohh and about the Catholic Church, yeah to say it is monolithic is entirely ignorant of History in that area. Every single council had vast amount of debate and issues agreed upon. So 21 Councils which represent numerous major riffs in the church that Papal decree would have been inconceivable, but still often led to a new separate Church every time, addressing easily 100's of large divides with often 1000's of people attend. Also, every papal decree represented a division in the Church that needed to be cleared up, the dozens of Great heresies that developed over that time, the thousands of rites developed in the way the worshiped numerous local pagan influences creeping in every, and the massive differences on how political rule and science should be like, as well as non official areas like nuances in morals and ethics, and aspects of theology that have no official position by the Church. At least that's my view on why I would not say the Catholic Church was very monolithic.

In regards to measuring monolithic of a movement, how much should hostility towards the other side be the judge? And what defines a movement and not the large movement is is defined within. Like when is it Communist movement and not Maoism, or Leftist? No group that's large will be complete mindless drones though

Martin writes:

The choice of 1926-1956 seems a little contrived, especially given the large internal conflicts pre-1926 in the Soviet Union (Mensheviks v Bolsheviks, The civil war, Stalin v Trotsky, The purges) and those from 1956 onwards across Eastern Europe. Many other dictatorships have lasted thirty years and are these not, by definition, monolithic?

Hyena writes:


Recall that the post is about comparative monolithicy; it starts by saying that we should reject the point about communist infighting as just so much missing the point.

You know, like you've done here.

Brian Clendinen writes:

Humans are not monolithic by nature (at least compaired to ever other observable nature specie/force). So I think you need to define the paramters, as in what areas are we talking about when it comes to monolithic. Are we talking philosophical, theoretical, actions, or all of the above? The Khmer Rouge was way more monolithic than Stalin Russia was. Granted we are dicussing a longer period with Stalin. So maybe the real leason is monolithic political systems can only exist under a tyarnt, two nomrally only a decade at most a generation. We due not know enough about the North Koreans, due to their closed society, to know if they have bucked the short life span trend.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"National Socialism - This one got me at first but then I remembered that although the Brown-Shirt SAs were instrumental in the rise of the Nazi in Germany, they were summarily destroyed by the party after it rose to power. That seems like a pretty big rift."

And the purges of trotskyites, "opportunists" and Titoists?

Miguel Madeira writes:

Of course, what can be argued is that national-socialism was not really an international movement (despite some outfits).

Jehova Witnesses?

Ba'athism (one big cision in 1966)?

Freudian psychoanalysis?

Austrian school of economics?

Vangel writes:

The AGW proponents come to mind.

How about Progressives?

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