Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book Selection: John Reed vs. Hernando de Soto

I love the bourgeoisie, responsible for most of the good things in this broken, miserable world — but one bourgeois tendency I try to resist is the novelistic temptation to think that a likable, well-meaning protagonist must necessarily be working for the right cause. Nice people can be very wrong.

Take John Reed, best known for Ten Days That Shook the World but also for the essays collected in a volume I recently read, Shaking the World: The Revolutionary Journalism of John Reed. An honest-to-gosh unrepentant Bolshevik of the early twentieth century, Reed may be most interesting now for providing reminders of how a decent person could have ended up rooting for the USSR, one of the most murderous regimes in history (not that he’s close to alone, as surveys of leftist American college professors reveal).

One always-reliable means of getting people to hunker down and defend evil is to give them an enemy to fight that seems even worse, and history obliged Reed (as the essays here attest) with U.S. imperialist adventures in Mexico, machine-gun-wielding corporate security goons massacring labor union strikers, and the dispiriting (to Reed) capture of the Progressive movement — and even the labor movement — by corporate-friendly, non-revolutionary forces. Further, there are only so many times you can expect a man to get arrested for his beliefs before he turns ornery.

Through it all, his beloved strikers, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies, who dreamt of “one big union” instead of separate trades), kept him hoping:

In the very forefront of labor’s struggle against this overwhelming evil power the IWW fights a guerilla warfare with all weapons, from guns to sabotage, propaganda, strikes, and open battles — outlaws and heroes, murdered and imprisoned by the hundreds, indestructible, singing their defiant, ironical songs.

As I’ll discuss later in the month in looking at the book The Democratic Wish, it’s really quite remarkable how recently — and how suddenly — the violent fight between labor and management was tamed (in what can be seen as a very conservative way, despite the institutionalized statism) by the New Deal, without which we might still settle such issues with blood in the streets, something worth remembering if one is ever tempted, as a free-marketeer, to say that nothing could be worse than the current regime (or for that matter that the press could be no farther left than it is in its current, Obamaphilic form). The extent to which corporations made violent, coercive use of the law against their working-class foes a century ago is quite shocking and easily forgotten — much less subtle than the ways they manipulate the law today.

Reed can’t stop at defending a largely-immigrant army of American strikers and their plucky union songs, though, going on to report from newly-Bolshevik Russia that he sees few people there imprisoned for their beliefs, admires that land’s revolution more than the U.S.’s own rich-elitist Founding (and the twentieth century’s ostensibly Republican-enslaved Supreme Court). He even defends the conscription of nigh-ineducable Russian peasants — with their stubborn “petty bourgeois” clinging to private property — into Labor Armies. Eventually, he would die after a harrowing spell in a White Russian prison.


Lest we think that there are no heroic writers traveling the world, aiding the poor, and reaching economic conclusions diametrically opposite to Reed’s, though, I strongly urge everyone reading this to watch Power of the Poor tonight (Oct. 8) at 10pm Eastern on PBS [UPDATE: and in the New York area, it'll be Sunday night, Oct. 11, at 10:30pm -- only on the secondary PBS station Channel 21], featuring Hernando de Soto, who has traveled the world spreading the bare-bones libertarian message that until the poor of the developing world have clearly-defined, legally-enforceable property rights, they cannot easily invest, trade, take out mortgages, enter into complex contracts, and all the other things that make complex modern economies possible. This is a very different message from that favored by leftists, aid agencies, the ignorant NGOs of the world — but it’s the right one.


And speaking of libertarian writers and Russian revolutions: I’ll also have much more to say soon about the already-available “November” issue of Reason, which features not only my defense of the centrality of property rights to libertarian thinking but also two pieces looking back at the 1989 collapse of Communism, on the verge of that glorious and under-celebrated event’s twentieth anniversary.

Twenty years — yet the blink of an eye in the grand historical scheme of things. Not that much time has really passed during our most familiar and contentious philosophical battles, as I’ve said before. If you’d said, back when agricultural civilization began 10,000 years ago, that it’d take thousands of years to work out the best social system, you’d have been quite reasonable and correct. Yet now people draw sweeping, radically-opposed conclusions by comparing, say, 1974 to 1983 or some other such minuscule pair of time slices. Some things are just now being worked out for the first time — industrial civilization, with all its growing pains and different organizational schemes, among them.


Dylan said...

Cool, I’m going to DVR that PBS show. I read some of de Soto’s stuff a while back. Thanks for the heads-up …

Todd Seavey said...

And note my “Update” comment above.

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Dave Whitney and the Rand-bashing writer of that GQ piece have something in common with me — we were all at Brown around the time of the collapse of Communism (as were some of the undergrad Objectivists insulted in the GQ piece). There as a grad student just a few years earlier, as it turns out, was the author of a book I picked up at a DC used books store (once more semi-coincidentally fumbling my way toward the familiar, in a way that suggests far more complex and subtle filters at work in this world and in our psyches than we are consciously aware of): Edward Abrahams’ The Lyrical Left: Randolph Bourne, Alfred Stieglitz, and the Origins of Cultural Radicalism in America surveys Greenwich Village radicals circa World War I and stresses the interesting point that they were in some ways more libertarian (even with John Reed and other revolutionaries among them) than the Progressive/liberal crowd over at the then-new magazine The New Republic, then located a few blocks north of the Village in Chelsea. [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] We the Living may be the most normal-human-feeling Rand story of which I’m aware, particularly her willingness to make Andrei the Communist a surprisingly sympathetic character. Socialism, as depicted in Rand’s work, is an inexcusable, alien offense in the U.S. but a genuine tragedy in Mother Russia. The convincing scenes of Party meetings at the local university, with their air of participatory democracy (marred by out-of-sight executions and backroom deals), reminded me very much of the unintentionally poignant descriptions in American Bolshevik reporter John Reed’s writings of his experiences in the early Soviet Union, when people really believed that the spontaneous collective bridge-building and so forth that they were engaged in was a model for the freer and more spontaneous future they were creating (with only occasional hints in the Reed essays I read of drafts, food shortages, and other rapidly-widening cracks in the armor of the worker’s paradise). [...]