Bryan Caplan  

Rothbard on Communism: Something Sensible

The Role of the State: Who De... Morning Reading...
As a rule, I find Rothbard's take on the history of Marxism-Leninism to be misguided, if not absurd.  But these paragraphs from Rothbard's 102-page critique of a now-forgotten American history textbook are excellent:
This is all he says of the nature of the Communist movement: the Communists, he says, were "a band of professional revolutionaries," who "started making it [the Soviet Union] the base for a campaign of world conquest."  I can think of no more absurd and inadequate treatment of the Communist movement. What has happened is that the Communists are defined as simply a band of people who decided that they want to conquer the world. This type of "Fu Manchu" treatment ignores the crucial fact of what Communism is: Communism is militant Marxism--it is the attempt to carry through Marxist revolution, to establish a thoroughgoing, 100 percent, proletarian-led, socialism.  Communism, then, is socialism militant.

How can it be that DeHuszar introduces the subject of Communism while giving no indication that its meaning and goal is Marxian socialism? Because to do so would mean that (a) Communism is simply a wing, a variant, of socialism; and (b) that socialism, in turn, is statism rampant, statism pushed to a logical conclusion. In short, DeHuszar's version of "Communism" permits him to lead the reader into a simplistic World War III (so far in the form of a "cold war") against a mysterious gangster enemy, a set of foreign devils who simply want to "conquer the world" (i.e., like Fu Manchu). Were the reader to find out that Communism is a variant of socialism, and socialism is, in turn, statism writ large, then he is likely to turn his attention from prosecuting a war against a set of foreign devils called "Communists" (along with their so-called "agents" at home) to the larger and more domestic problem of socialism and statism.
Which reminds me: The oddest thing I've noticed about conservative anti-Communism is how rarely conservatives mention any of the Marxist-Leninists' most horrible crimes - the collectivization famines, dekulakization, the slave labor camps, the mass deportations.  It's puzzling.  If you were blissfully unaware of these horrors, what exactly would motivate you to become a fervent anti-Communist?

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
Stan writes:

They were the "others" who were atheists.
What do I win?

FC writes:

In my experience most conservative intellectuals are already well-informed about Communist atrocities. So when speaking or writing for fellow conservatives they tend to consider it common knowledge that does not need to be always repeated. But May Day is always a good time for ritual remembrance.

Gian writes:

Well read Buckley's spy thrillers. They do mention all these. In one of them the story centres around two Russians that that served in slave camps. One defected to US while the other became a rocket scientist in USSR.

Patrick writes:

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William Barghest writes:

Nationalism is conservative and is aided by fighting an external threat, so why conservatives would decide the enemy is out there is not hard to understand, the question is why didn't they vilify the communists because of their massive human rights violations in the 1930's rather than their their supposed military posture and to a lesser extent atheism and absence of civil freedoms. All I can think is that the worst of the human rights violations happened before modern conservativism comes about in the 50's, and harping about the pre WW2 atrocities isn't a reason to do something about the Soviet Union, but an existential threat is.

Prakhar Goel writes:

"How can it be that DeHuszar introduces the subject of Communism while giving no indication that its meaning and goal is Marxian socialism?"

Alternate explanation: DeHuszar like any good historian notices that the communists were no different than the hundreds of professional revolutionaries before them. That they may have spoken of the rule of the proletariat but wherever the communists ruled, they ruled as dictators (this is of course, only one of the many possible examples). Therefore Marxism-Leninism was nothing more than words to these professional revolutionaries. If the communists are analyzed as professional revolutionaries in the same vein as the Jacobites, the French revolutionaries (many of whom were Jacobites), the current Iranian Muslim Mullahs, the FLN, the ANC, and thousands others, their actions make sense. There is a pattern to their atrocities --- they can be predicted. Thus why not focus on facts with predictive value?

P.S. These paragraphs demonstrate one common affliction of all libertarians: an obsession with words which manifests itself as a debilitating inability to recognize and filter out political speech.

P.P.S. If you think conservatives aren't aware of the atrocities committed by communists, this is more a reflection of you not having met enough conservatives.

MS writes:

@Prakhar Goel writes:

You're onto something although broaden your view beyond political speech and it really makes sense; men after power by exploiting the current and legitmate aspirations of people in a particular place at a particular time of economic stress.

Ryan writes:

Really, Mr. Caplan? You can't think of any other reason to be a fervent anti-Communist other than the particular actions of despots?

I can't speak for everyone, but there are many of us out there who see Communism as a system to be fundamentally flawed, ideologically repressive, and that totalitarianism is its inevitable result. The many examples of despotic atrocities build a good case against tyranny, but to some of us, we need not even take it that far. Any system that purports to know what's best for everyone is creepy and evil in its own right (or so people like me think). The particulars make a good case as to why, but need not be the reason we think so.

Tracy W writes:

Prakhar Goel - how about Julius Nyerere of Tanzania? He tried to implement socialism in Tanzania, but stood down when it became inarguable that it wasn't working.

pj writes:

Bryan, you might just be too young. When I was youthful in the 1970s conservatives emphasized the horrors of communism repeatedly. Solzhenitsyn was lionized by conservatives for his exposure of communist atrocities. The argument that communism had created horrors akin to the Holocaust was regularly thrown at liberals; the killing fields of Cambodia were a rebuke to liberals.

But liberals hated hearing about that stuff, and wanted to deny or forget. Once it was clear communism was on the retreat during the Reagan administration, the debate turned to tactics; once the Berlin Wall fell, it was no longer topical.

Even so, how can you not know that it was conservatives who led the way in exposing those atrocities? Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest are good examples.

David R. Henderson writes:

What pj said. Also Eugene Lyons, who I think was a conservative, was the first author I read, in the late 1960s, who wrote a lot about the horrors you mention.

B.B. writes:

I think you are wrong.

I invite you read the archive of National Review from its founding through the 1980s. Hear the speeches of Reagan. Read "Human Events" over the same time period. Or the columns of William F. Buckley. Even read the Readers' Digest.

And there were conservatives who were once Communists. Whitiker Chambers, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Max Eastman, David Horowitz. Then never hesitated to describe the horrors and crimes of the Communists.

There were some on the Left like George Orwell and Sidney Hook who woke up to Communism.

But try to read the horrors in the New York Times or Nation or the New Republic or NPR or PBS. Good luck.

Prakhar Goel writes:


I am not onto anything, just covering old ground. Burnham knew all this and wrote about it --- every week --- for at least three decades starting in the early 1940s. Pareto wrote a massive (imo a must for any serious student of history and political science) 4-volume treatise known as Mind and Society nearly a hundred years ago. Machiavelli wrote The Prince half a millennia ago.

There is no insight in what I wrote, just very old forgotten knowledge. I continue to be astounded at how people who regularly write on politics and social science simply ignore all this knowledge.


You are putting the cart before the horse. The real culprits are ruthless amoral ambitious men who wanted power and didn't care how they got it. Communism, Marxism, and the rest were just tools. If not communism, they would have come up with something else.

@Tracy W

No, not all communists were liars manipulating others for power ... but most of them were. We are not talking about atoms and electrons here, we are talking about men and women and a tiny unusual class of men and women at that.

Kurbla writes:

"If you were blissfully unaware of these horrors, what exactly would motivate you ..."

Although capitalist regimes and systems are responsible for unspeakable crimes, the main motive for anti-capitalism is egalitarian system of values. I guess it is similar for anti-communists.

Doc Merlin writes:

"The oddest thing I've noticed about conservative anti-Communism is how rarely conservatives mention any of the Marxist-Leninists' most horrible crimes - the collectivization famines, dekulakization, the slave labor camps, the mass deportations. It's puzzling. "

Really? They were all over Reader's Digest and the popular media. It was only the inteligencia and left elites that ignored them. The right wingers ponded on them over and over.

Also, the common argument form leftists was that those communists were evil, and what we needed were better communists. Because of that, the right developed arguments against communism's code beliefs, not just its actions.

Ryan writes:


First, I'm of the opinion that communist systems offer more to such people than American-style democratic republics.

Second, in a communist system, even good people who don't happen to be communists are considered a threat. In a more capitalistic world, one can choose to be a communist without becoming an enemy of the system - and one can also choose to be a capitalist.

Hence the systemic flaw, even independent of the atrocities.

Chris T writes:

If you only focus on the actions committed by communist governments, supporters can always claim that it was due to greedy tyrants and not a natural result of communism itself. Pointing out the fatal flaws in the very foundations of communist thought is far more effective.

Prakhar Goel writes:


You are trying to measure the difference between ideological positions. It's a fool's errand. If the American system offers fewer opportunities for atrocities, it is because it is run by saner men.

As for good people considered a threat, the definition of "good people" is infinitely pliable. Thomas Carlyle, once considered a demigod of social thought, is now relegated to the trash can. If people actually knew about him, he would instantly be considered a "racist".

Actions considered criminal today in the US (selective admissions for example) were common in the early 1900s and if an early 20th century American was transported to the world of today, they would be absolutely shocked at the kind of misbehavior and criminal behavior we tolerate. Hell, we could just bring somebody from Singapore to downtown LA to achieve the same effect.

If the average Roman citizen was transported to the world today, he would immediately be thrown in jail (assuming he could be prosecuted after the judges got done removing Miranda violations). He would certainly not be considered a "good man" regardless of his status in the Roman Empire.

Ryan, you think good people aren't considered a threat because your definition of good people is itself affected by what you consider a threat.

If you wish to analyze an ideology as an ideology[1], at least have the sanity to analyze it in its own terms. A good communist who properly supported the party had little to worry about in the USSR. The physical hardships that he endured were simply his lot in life and were a necessary sacrifice for the good of the proletariat. Unlike the US, the USSR had only trivial amounts of crime. Those prosecuted deserved to be.

[1] Most ideologies are self-consistent. Most ideologies also consider every other ideology to be inferior in some way. This tells us little. The only way to analyze ideologies effectively is to drop normative constructs entirely and rigorously and explicitly describe the standards one uses to arrive at conclusions. Pareto provides an excellent example of this in the first chapter of his work, Mind and Society. Your second paragraph when placed in this light simply reads that people who are considered good by the American standards are not prosecuted in a government run on American principles (or should I say Ryanesqe principles, as everybody is their own person). Ryanism may work for you (and kudos if it does --- most people just muddle through life without any standards) but it is not sufficient for history. History must span civilizations and in my opinion, history must tell us something about the future.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Chris T

Remove communism and people will simply come up with a new ideology to justify their actions. Once again, an obsession with words will get you exactly nowhere.

Gian writes:

Is the "goodness" is entirely defined by arbitrary positive laws and customs of a land?.
Is there a land in which murder is not a crime, theft is applauded, rape is praiseworthy?

Troy Camplin writes:

I suppose you could point to the economic failure of the system as well. That would make me fervent, at least. Of course, I'm a fervent free marketeer precisely for the reason that it's the freest, most productive, most welath-producing, most ethical, fairest economic system ever. Socialism is the opposite of all these.

Prakhar Goel writes:


Well, actually yes. Just off the top of my head, the Roman father had the authority to execute his sons and slaves. Under Sharia, killing an infidel is not a crime. In the middle ages, the defining characteristic of murder was not mens rea but rather whether the attacker tried to hid the act or declare it openly.

As for rape, once again the islamic states come to mind where proving an allegation of rape requires something like four male witnesses.

Theft: pirates, privateers, bandits, Robin Hood, Vikings, Somalia.

Ultimately, "goodness" is a Humean Ought and while it may be possible to "prove" a standard of "goodness", it cannot be done through logic.

Look, I think you are taking my point far too personally. Every nation has its broad standard of good and personally, I much prefer ours to, say, the standards used in Iran. My claim is limited to historical study. That for understanding history, looking for "goodness" is a waste of time. Here we are specifically evaluating how good a job a historian writing a book on history did.

Ryan writes:

Prakhar, what you said to me is a little too value-relative for my tastes. I believe in concrete right and wrong, i.e. rape and murder are just as wrong now as they were 6,000 years ago and at every point in between. The same is true of lesser crimes.

Certainly, some things that are currently criminal are not actually immoral (like killing and eating a wild deer outside of hunting season). Some things that are perfectly legal are patently immoral (like lying). Legal and illegal are different questions than moral and immoral.

Furthermore, your point that concrete right and wrong cannot be proven is spurious. One need not undertake to prove his/her moral system or lack thereof in every conversation about morality, much less a system about the viability of political systems. The fact that morals and values are subjective is precisely the reason why systems that provide greater individual liberty work better. They allow more individual moral systems to flourish, as opposed to condemning us all to the value system of the dictator currently in power.

Relativism and polylogism are powerless in the face of liberty. They make for interesting conversations but wholly unsatisfying policy tools.

Chris T writes:

Prakhar - I'm a little confused as to what your response had to do with my post.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Chris T

When you said that pointing out the flaws of communism was more effective, I assumed you meant to prevent more atrocities, etc... My claim is that pointing out the flaws of communism will have absolutely no effect because communism is just a justification --- one out of many thousands possible.

Prakhar Goel writes:


"... conversation about morality ... viability of political systems. ..."

There is our problem right there. This conversation isn't about morality and morality isn't even relevant when understanding the viability of political systems. This conversation is about history and morality is a positively detrimental concept there.

David Perry writes:
Unlike the US, the USSR had only trivial amounts of crime.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn claims that there actually was quite a bit of crime in the USSR, and that the government deliberately encouraged it as a means of cowing and controlling the population (for instance, the common criminals incarcerated in the Gulag were treated better than the political prisoners, and the former were basically given free run to boss about and terrorize the latter.)

Ott writes:

"Which reminds me: The oddest thing I've noticed about conservative anti-Communism is how rarely conservatives mention any of the Marxist-Leninists' most horrible crimes - the collectivization famines, dekulakization, the slave labor camps, the mass deportations. It's puzzling. If you were blissfully unaware of these horrors, what exactly would motivate you to become a fervent anti-Communist?"

Gee Bryan. I guess you don't read much, do you?

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