Bryan Caplan  

Mandela and Communist Villainy

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Don't expect too much from inf... Warren Gibson on Bad Libertari...
Bill Keller in the NYT:
But Mandela's Communist affiliation is not just a bit of history's flotsam. It doesn't justify the gleeful red baiting, and it certainly does not diminish a heroic legacy, but it is significant in a few respects.
I'm puzzled.  How can a "hero" join a movement that murdered millions of innocents?  How can a "hero" remain in a movement that continued to murder millions of innocents?  Because that is precisely what Mandela did.  At the time Mandela joined, the Soviet Union, Soviet satellites, and Maoist China had already murdered tens of millions via execution, terror-famine, and draconian slave labor camps.  After Mandela joined, Communist movements around the world continued this villainous tradition, and Maoist China took it to new heights.

Are we really supposed to believe that Mandela didn't know about these bloodbaths?  If he somehow managed to remain oblivious for decades, he'd be a fool, not a hero.

If Mandela had merely allied with the South African Communist Party - as he repeatedly lied - you could say, "His actions were no worse than the U.S. wartime alliance with the Soviet Union."  But he wasn't a Communist ally.  He was a member of the SACP's Central Committee.

But isn't it great that Mandela didn't act like a Communist once he gained power?  Sure.  Yet that doesn't make him a "hero" any more than Deng Xiaoping.  Utterly villainous systems are often reformed by moderately villainous people.  We should be thankful for these reformist villains.  But that's no reason to forget what they really are.


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Enial Cattesi writes:

As far as I know communism is still considered an worthy ideal. The last experiment had a managerial problem, but with the new advances in economic science and with the right people it could work. Just ask Stiglitz (really, just ask him).

Communism is championed as the solution to climate change/global warming/ etc. It will solve our problem with resource depletion. It will save our souls, not to mention the whales, the snails, endangered species of dolphins, the bees, the trees, eagles and provide a voice for all those ignored, but know all intellectuals. Free education and free medical care and with the right people at the helm there will be no boot crushing your face.

I don't know why people think that communism lost its appeal. The fact that Mandela remained a communism does not detract from his status as a hero, but enhances it.

Granite26 writes:

I'm not sure I follow.

Russian and Chinese communism were clearly horrible, but the idea of communism itself is just misguided. I think that you'd have to establish that the South African Communist Party of which he was a member was supporting those governments in some way beyond agreement with their espoused political philosophy.

From my limited understanding of the history of the time, blacks organized in large numbers under the umbrella of communist parties as a direct response to the oppression of the major preexisting parties. Isn't Kwanzaa a part of that, too?

Using an outside force to help them attain their own political goals isn't bad, UNLESS part of the bargain was supporting communist atrocities, or else importing them into their own policies.

Mandela joining what was likely the major political unit of blacks in SA at the time doesn't strike me as particularly evil here, ESPECIALLY given that he didn't implement any of the horribleness.

If you can point to any evidence that the SACP was anything more than the beneficiary of worldwide communism's making hay of the west's racial troubles, I'll admit I'm wrong about this, but I'm not seeing a smoking gun.

sourcreamus writes:

We should judge politicians by what they do more than what they believe. Once in power Mandela did not act like a communist, he acted like a person trying to heal the racial divisions of his country. That is what made him a hero. We can judge his poor judgement but ultimately his actions are what are important.
The same with Deng Xiaoping, whatever his personal thoughts and beliefs, he ended communism in China which led to better lives for hundreds of millions of people.

David N writes:

Maybe, if the West hadn't backed the apartheid regime at that time, we could have drawn Mandela away from the Soviet camp. Communism wasn't the only evil around, and unfortunately the West supported the other evil. Perhaps, from Mandela's perspective, he chose the lesser of two evils.

Bryan,
Aren't you relying upon guilt by association?
If Mandela is responsible for the atrocities committed by the larger communist movement, then is Ron Paul responsible for the Iraq war started by other Republicans?

Pajser writes:

It is impossible to say what happened in Mandela's mind. You can ask communists around you. I'm communist, and for me and most of the communists I know - it is obvious that capitalism is not just, and that communist society - as it is imagined - is better.

After one come to that, murders are not good counterargument - from exactly the same reason that murders committed by capitalist regimes are not good counterargument for advocates of capitalism - all sides claim that murders are not part of their ideology, but responsibility of particular regimes and their leaders. After that point is made, very few moves are left, but they lead nowhere and eventually, people accept that position.

...communist society - as it is imagined - is better.

How about as it is practiced? Can you name even one communist society that was 'better' than capitalist societies?

Or even better than, say, South American dictatorships?

Slim934 writes:

"After one come to that, murders are not good counterargument - from exactly the same reason that murders committed by capitalist regimes are not good counterargument for advocates of capitalism - all sides claim that murders are not part of their ideology, but responsibility of particular regimes and their leaders. After that point is made, very few moves are left, but they lead nowhere and eventually, people accept that position."

That strikes me as kind of a dopey counter argument. The difference is that no one has to be killed (or even hurt in any way) for capitalism to do it's job. Indeed, inorder for it to do its job violence must be eschewed and only engaged in in defense or retaliation. Communism itself is an ideology of violence, it is based on the very notion that property cannot be owned. Since property cannot be owned, resources cannot be allocated to competing uses, and there is therefore no means of deciding their use except the strength of whoever is strongest enough to take them. Communism is based entirely off a false conception of reality.

Communism can ONLY work in the biblical Garden of Eden, where all of one's wants can be provided by mere thought. Even then it would still not be perfect because there is only ever one of one given person's body and mind, therefore there is still something that is scarce. Communism assumes away scarcity, when scarcity is the central problem.

Arthur_500 writes:

Communism was completely discredited early in the 20th century. Liberals then started to utilize the term "Progressive" to mask their liberal communism.

Liberal communism is a manner in which an individual says everyone must be equal, except me because I am special. In other words, there is an elite ruling class.

Africa still continues this idea in which individuals come to power by overthrowing the prior regime and claiming they are for the people. In fact, once they get in power they simply continue as the new dictator.

Mandela should be recognized for his understanding that he could bring about change by bringing the country to its knees economically. He was arguably the first to do this and many have followed in his footsteps.

I don't know, nor will we ever know, if Mandela was a true communist or simply that was the party of opposition. Age has a tendency to mellow radical ideas and it could be that when he was released from prison and anointed as the ipso facto next ruler of South Africa he understood that he needed to rebuild the economy and bring about prosperity.

Why get hung up on his membership in the Communist Party wen we have the majority of our members of the Senate and many in the House of Representatives who are communists?

Brian writes:

"it is obvious that capitalism is not just, and that communist society - as it is imagined - is better."

No, capitalism as it is imagined is perfectly just, so communist society, even as imagined, cannot be more so. Granted, capitalism as practiced is not perfectly just, but this is a function of the human condition and not intrinsic to capitalism itself. But capitalism as practiced is still more just than communism as practiced, as history has shown repeatedly.

MingoV writes:

I was surprised by the postmortem elevation of Mandela to near sainthood. I'm old enough to remember that Mandela was associated with groups containing terrorists and murderers. He tacitly condoned such groups before and after he became president. Mandela wasn't a Pol Pot, but he wasn't a great man or a great leader.

Pajser writes:

Patrick R. Sullivan: How about as it is practiced? Can you name even one communist society that was 'better' than capitalist societies?

Let us look at East European countries, for instance. Neither one of these societies was really communist, because collective rule is part of definition of communism and it is incompatible with dictatorship of the Party elite. I look at those as imitations of the communist societies. Political freedoms were horrible. Egalitarianism - not perfect, but still better than any capitalist society. Planned economy - on average it wasn't good, but it worked and in some periods, it actually worked well. That is, shortly, my opinion.

Slim934: First, you believe that in capitalism, violence is engaged only in defense or retaliation. True, but not enough. Even the bad regimes can claim that they use violence only to defend some - unjust order. Second, you claim that in communism, resources cannot be allocated to competing uses. It doesn't seems true or relevant to me. Communist society can organize competition if needed. Second, competition for resource is not enough to say that there is no violence. Whoever the winner, he uses violence against losers - and against those who do not compete.

In my mind, it is other way around: the property[1] is the violence. Example: as long as beach has no owner - you and I can use beach for swimming etc. We have freedom, and there is no violence. At the moment beach is owned - we must ask for permission. We lost our freedom. Owner of the beach threat with physical force if we use it without permission - and that is violence. Violence is in root of property. Not all cases are as simple as beach and swimmers, but it is essence.

[1] I use term property in the meaning "a thing owned by someone" as in dictionary.


IR Major writes:

It seems to me that Mandela was merely reasoning that the enemy of his enemy was his friend.

Mandela, having grown up in South Africa, was far more well acquainted with the sordid injustices of Apartheid than he was with the sordid justices that took place thousands of miles away within Russia and China. Additionally, he was in prison from 1962 until 1991. Stalin's crimes, of course, had already taken place by then (and Khruschev had denounced them) but Mao's greatest excesses did't take place until the Cultural Revolution in 1965, right? Mandela was only allowed one newspaper a month while he was in Robben Island, and my guess is that he was far more focused on domestic than foreign news. If you had been a black man living in South Africa under Apartheid, which do you think would have made a stronger impression on you: the daily indignities and injustices of racial segregation that you and people like you experienced, or distant news in countries that you knew little about, much of which wasn't declassified until decades later?

Mandela was doing what any Realist political leader does: he used a potential ally to balance against an imminent threat, just like the US and Britain allied Stalin to combat Nazi Germany or the way the US supported Singman Rhee or South Vietnam against North Korea and North Vietnam. Mandela later remarked: "There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us, but who is to say that we are not using them?"

It would be incredibly foolish to suggest that mere association implies approval. What it implies is the inescapable force of Realpolitik.

It would additionally be a rather curious sort of historian who would judge a political leader by association rather than that leader's individual actions. In the words of Victor Hugo, it would mistake the shadow for the substance.

Dale writes:

Mr. Sullivan

Surely, on a libertarian blog, we would not use naivete about the failure of their ideology to produce stable and effective societies as a weapon against their motives.

Christopher Chang writes:

The comment about Deng seems out of place. At the time Deng joined the Communists, in 1921, they did not yet have the track record of horror which had been established by the Soviets by 1953. He did not instigate violence where none previously existed; instead, he was a combatant in a more conventional civil war. He does deserve a bit of the blame for Chinese Communist excesses in the late 1950s, but he was quick to see that the Great Leap Forward economic policies were not working and never made the same mistake again (unfortunately, Mao then purged Deng and enforced continued insanity).

I believe that, in any objective comparison between Deng and Mandela, Deng comes out way, way ahead.

John Becker writes:

I don't know if you're being too hard on these people or too soft. You have to remember with some people who joined the Communist party that they either grew up in a world where those ideas were all they were exposed to and/or joining the Communist party was simply politically expedient. Politically expedient could mean it might advance your career or it might make you less likely to die by firing squad or it might make your cause (usually independence) more likely to receive outside support.

Tracy W writes:

Yet Deng and Mandela both did an amazing amount of good. To describe them as "moderately villainous", well, if so then what does that make the rest of us? What have you done in your life that's as useful as what they did?

Enial Cattesi writes:

@Tracy W:

What have you done in your life that's as useful as what they did?

I get it. "You didn't build that." I wonder when it will become "You live because we let you.(big round of applause)"

Stefan writes:

The US is villanous because it was a Soviet ally in WWII. The US even provided lots of material support to the Soviet regime, something Mandela never did. QED

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Ending apartheid and restoring majority rule would leave South Africa with an unstable society. Whites would still own everything worth owning. So how does Mandela deal with this?

Pajser writes:

Brian wrote "No, capitalism as it is imagined is perfectly just, so communist society, even as imagined, cannot be more so."

An example of obvious injustice in capitalism is that some people are born as landlords and others — without anything. Trust your guts.

David N writes:

One copy of "Harrison Bergeron," stat.

vikingvista writes:

"it is based on the very notion that property cannot be owned"

Ostensibly. In reality, property is ubiquitous and inescapable in human existence. Communism and capitalism are about WHO owns property. In capitalism, it is he who acquires it without violence (homesteading, production, and free trade). In communism, it is he who makes decisions for the collective.

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