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Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom
Understanding the artificial dialectic. The zigzags of politically correct opinion in communist regimes.
In a collection of essays titled The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism, the great twentieth century Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin tells a story:
There once was a man who worked as a steward on a seagoing ship.
He was told that, in order to avoid breaking plates during heavy weather, he should not walk in a straight line. Rather, he should try to move in a zig zag manner to maintain his balance.
A storm came. The steward dropped his plates, shattering them in the process.
Asked why he had not followed instructions, the steward replied, “I did, but when I zigged the ship zagged, and when I zagged the ship zigged.”
The story of the steward and the ship is an allegory for how citizens under the Soviet regime had to constantly intuit where the Party “line” was at any given moment.
Acquiring a semi-instinctive awareness of the precise moment when a zig turns into a zag is, Berlin states, “the most precious knack” a regime citizen can acquire. Lest they miscalculate and wind up facing kangaroo courts, followed by imprisonment or execution.
The inability to master the art of identifying the correct opinion to hold at the correct time led to many of the Soviet regime’s most faithful and devoted supporters to be exterminated.
This was especially true among intellectuals and scholars.
The careers and lives of writers, scientists, artists, and academics depended on the ability to swiftly and accurately know which type of pretzel to bend their mind into at a moment’s notice.
How do large numbers of people suddenly come to adopt the same view on an issue that, until recently, no one cared about?
Isaiah Berlin, writing in 1952, observed that no one had figured out how to predict in advance the “general line” of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
The abrupt and ferocious shifts of “correct opinion” puzzled not only outsiders, but Soviet citizens themselves. Even officials within the Communist Party were often bewildered at the sudden reversals of correct opinion.
The term “political correctness” was first used in 1917 by Marxist-Leninist devotees following the Russian Revolution. It was used to describe adherence to the policies and principles of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In other words, the party line.
“Inability to predict curious movements of the line is a crucial failure in a communist. At best it upsets all his personal calculations; at worst, it brings total ruin upon him…But even allowing for disparate factors such as nationalism, human fallibility, and the confusion of human affairs in general, the irregular path traversed by the ideological policy of the Soviet Union still remains abnormally puzzling.”
Marxist doctrine helps to understand these zig zags.
Soviet officials drew their perspectives and policies from a hodgepodge of ideas advanced by Marx, Engels, and Hegel, as well as Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, among others.
An overarching theory drawn from these figures is that there are alternating phases of history: “crests” and “troughs.”
There are periods when history appears to be in a state of rising conflict, moving toward a revolutionary climax (“crests”).
On the other hand, there are more frequent and lengthy periods when things generally seem calm and stable (“troughs”).
This isn’t something Marx said should happen. Rather, he said this is what would happen. He was making predictions about how history would unfold.
Marxist doctrine claims that underneath the peaceful surface of societies there is always a clash of factors, or contradictions, that will suddenly erupt and lead to a violent collision.
According to the theory, these alternating phases gradually lead societies step by step to a communist utopia.
During periods of stability, the revolution is in a hibernation period. Like a mole underground.
This is when revolutionaries consolidate their resources rather than expend their energy in battle. This period of quiet incubation lulls potential rivals and enemies into a false sense of security. The revolutionaries form alliances with other left-wing and progressive coalitions by downplaying their plans to initiate violent conflict.
Then, when the forces of history appear to align to give them an advantage, the revolutionaries drop all pretense of solidary with these groups. This vanguard breaks its false (but at an earlier stage tactically necessary) relationships with their “soft” and confused temporary allies.
When the chance presents itself, the revolutionaries seize as much power as they can to turn the dial of society closer to the paradise they envision will surely come after enough alternating cycles.
According to Marxist doctrine, in revolutionary situations, communist devotees should liquidate their now worthless allies and advance to obtain power. In non-revolutionary periods, though, they should rest and plan.
“Accumulate strength by ad hoc alliances, by building popular fronts, by adopting liberal and humanitarian disguises, by quoting ancient texts which imply the possibility, almost the desirability, of peaceful mutually tolerant coexistence.”
The aim is to create a popular and desirable public image, and build alliances with people who the revolutionaries can later use to the extent they can help advance their aims, and then later betray them.
The dialectical pattern: peaks and valleys of apathy and fanaticism.
The Soviet regime relied on this pattern to maintain their grip on power.
Ordinary citizens and high-ranking officials alike stood in awe of the unpredictable movement of the Party line.
These frenzied movements, mobilizations, purges and other Party-led activities were not incidental to political life, they were essential to it.
Communist regimes thrived on a sense of embattlement; a relentless belief in looming danger, constant internal and external threat, and an uncompromising desire to impose political guidance that never allowed anyone to rest.
In the Soviet Union and Maoist China, intellectuals and scientists in fields such as physics, chemistry and, especially, genetics, had to do backflips to ensure that their results matched the Party line at any given time.
Anyone with a modicum of status in the regime had to grasp the intellectual trickery involved in justifying the glaring contradictions in thought, word and deed that form the underpinnings of the Party line.
Here is one obvious example, a quote from Joseph Stalin in 1930:
“We are waiting for the withering away of the state…The highest development of state power in preparation of the preconditions for the withering away of state power — that is the Marxist formula. Is that ‘contradictory’? Yes it is ‘contradictory.’ But this contradiction is inherent in life and it completely mirrors the Marxist dialectic.’
In other words, the communist aim is to eliminate the state. But to do so they say they must first enhance state control to historically unprecedented levels.
Similarly, Mao stated in 1949:
"'Don't you want to abolish state power?' Yes we do, but not right now. Why? Because domestic reaction still exists, because classes still exist. Our present task is to strengthen the people's army, the people's police, in order to protect the people's interests."
Marxist (to be more precise, Marxist-Leninist) doctrine is at its core contradictory.
It demands that devotees accept mutually exclusive ideas or practices as being simultaneously correct.
It’s not supposed to make sense.
Contradictions are baked right into the theory. And if one were to question this, well, they just don’t get it. They must not have the people’s best interest at heart.
Marxist doctrine maintains that while the Party and movement are subject to the inexorable processes of History, at the same time it holds a unique mandate to shape and lead it. They decide how history should go and also happen to be on the right side of the inevitable process of it.
But what happens after a regime has already been established by way of revolution, and its leaders promote the view that the revolution is far from over?
Despite calls for social harmony and peace, the Communist Party in both the Soviet Union and Maoist China was founded on and engaged in ceaseless conflict.
Berlin points out potential dangers for such regimes.
For instance, during phases of fanaticism, the revolutionaries can go too far.
In their excessive zeal, they may destroy too much, and may set their sights on exterminating individuals who hold talents useful to the regime. Moreover, few revolutionary periods achieve the goals of its supporters.
“After the first intoxication of triumph is over, a mood of disillusionment, frustration, and presently indignation sets in among the victors: some among the most sacred objectives have not been accomplished; evil still stalks the earth; someone must be to blame; someone is guilty of lack of zeal, of indifference, perhaps of sabotage, even of treachery. And so individuals are accused and condemned and punished for failing to accomplish something which, in all probability, could not in the actual circumstances have been brought about by anyone; men are tried and executed for causing a situation for which no one is in fact responsible…trials and penalties fail to remedy the situation. Indignation gives way to fury, terror is resorted to, executions are multiplied…once the nightmare of mutual suspicion, recrimination, terror and counter-terror has set in, it is too late to draw back: the whole structure begins to crumble in the welter of frantic heresy-hunts from which scarcely anyone will escape.”
Part of the reason the Soviet Union was in a relentless state of frenzy—purging, interrogating, kangaroo courts, imprisoning, executing and so on—is because they never accomplished the goals they thought they would. The communist utopia never arrived.
And thus the revolution was never over.
These periods of frenzy and violence, according to the Marxist dialectic, are supposed to have moved society one step closer to utopia. And then settle into a period of stability and calm before the next violent phase.
But this doesn’t happen. Brutality frequently gives rise to more brutality, unless some outside entity steps in to stop it.
So, Berlin notes, communist revolutionaries find themselves in a predicament. The dialectic of revolution, followed by calm, followed by revolution, each step leading closer and closer toward the ultimate goal of a communist utopian state, is supposed to come naturally through the organic process of history as Marx described.
But it doesn’t.
Peace does not inevitably give rise to disorder and violence, and periods of violence do not inevitably lead to lengthy periods of stability. And these cycles do not inevitably inch a society toward a communist utopia.
The ingenious method of the Soviet Union, Berlin states, was to implement an “artificial dialectic.”
Instead of allowing the invisible forces of history to control the dialectical pattern, the regime’s officials placed the task in their own hands.
The Party had a penchant for tyranny informed by a supposedly sophisticated political theory. They claimed that they had History on their side, and that they were the agents of change who embodied it.
The policy required accurate timing. The Soviet leaders had to calculate the right degree of force required to swing the political and social pendulum to obtain the results they desired at any given moment.
As an illustration, Berlin highlights the conditions of the Soviet Union in the Second World War.
In 1941, in the midst of a brutal conflict when the fate of the Soviet system appeared to be in jeopardy, the regime suddenly began promoting patriotic sentiment for the masses.
This sentiment was previously forbidden, because communism was supposed to transcend national boundaries.
“This acted as a safety-valve to the pent-up feeling which the population had had to suppress during the previous two decades. The Party leaders clearly realized that this rush of national feeling acted as the most powerful single psychological factor in stimulating resistance to the enemy…the war was won on a wave of patriotic rather than ideological fervour.”
In other words, communist ideology was not a strong enough motivator to fight in a large-scale war. So in order to achieve their desired ends, Stalin and his functionaries re-ignited patriotic feelings in the masses and in their troops to win the war.
During this period, when the regime allowed patriotism, and when their attention was directed to winning the war, communist ideological fervour temporarily dissipated.
Writers wrote more freely, thinkers spoke more openly. And the admiration of national heroes once again became fashionable.
Later, after the Soviet troops returned home, the regime decided a re-inoculation of Communist doctrine was in order.
This was because many returned soldiers had come into contact with different people from various countries, e.g., Brits, Americans, Germans, and so on, who had ideas and beliefs that were at odds with communist dogma.
The Soviet regime officials carefully supervised the troops to ensure that they did not exhibit patterns of resistance to the central authority of their home country.
In 1945, the Soviet regime issued a call for stricter orthodoxy. The policy of encouraging patriotism was halted.
Berlin describes this period of the shifting artificial dialectic:
“All were reminded of their Marxist duties. Prominent representatives of various nationalities were found to have gone too far in glorifying their local past, and were called to order with unmistakable severity. Regional histories were suppressed. The all-embracing cloak of ideological orthodoxy once more fell upon the land…Heresy-hunts were instituted once more.”
The reins, which had been loosed during the war, were suddenly tightened once more.
This kind of fanatical zealotry, though, must be tightly controlled before it gets out of hand.
“After purging major and minor dissentients, the inquisitors are perforce carried on by their own sacred zeal until they are found probing into the lives and works of the great leaders of the Party themselves. At this point they must be swiftly checked if the whole machine is not to be disrupted from within. An added reason for stopping the purge and denouncing its agents as deranged extremists who have run amok is that this will be popular with the scared and desperate rank and file…A might hand descends from the clouds to halt the inquisition. The Kremlin has heard the cry of the people, has observed its children’s plight.”
“A sigh of relief goes up from the potential victims; there is an outpouring of gratitude which is sincere enough. Faith in the goodness, wisdom and all-seeing eye of the leader, shaken during the slaughter, is once more restored.”
A functional regime wants to preserve some degree of sanity.
Especially among the elite it relies upon. So any violent swing of the pendulum, as it begins knocking down too many useful people, requires a corrective.
Thus, communist regime officials would interfere before things got too out of hand.
Once the revolutionaries begin to turn their attention to the leaders of the regime, and strike too much terror into the hearts of ordinary people, the regime officials reverse the direction of the artificial dialectic.
The leaders have used the revolutionaries to suit their own ends, and they then bring them to heel.
Berlin observes that experienced citizens of the regime understand that shifting vibes toward compromise and free expression are unlikely to last for very long.
Eventually, the regime’s functionaries, who control the artificial dialectic, will find an opportune moment to re-ignite agitation in order to achieve some desired end.
New calls for conformity, purity, and orthodoxy are issued; targeting of suspects begins, and the cycle repeats itself.
The revolution never ends until the communist utopia finally arises. This aspect of Marxist doctrine extended to China as well.
A quote from Mao:
“We should maintain the same vigour, the same revolutionary enthusiasm and the same death-defying spirit we displayed in the years of the revolutionary wars and carry our revolutionary work through to the end.”
The Soviet and Maoist regimes employed hundreds of thousands of professional agitators, as well as informants, to ensure nobody deviated from the Communist Party line, and held the correct opinions about Marxist dogma.
In eastern China during the Cultural Revolution, a 16-year-old denounced his mother to an army officer in his village. He slipped a note under the officer’s door accusing her of criticizing the revolution and its leader, Mao Zedong. She was bound, publicly beaten and executed.
The slogan “Father is Close, Mother is Close, but Neither as Close as Chairman Mao” was inculcated into every child in China. As one student noted, “We were drilled to think that anyone, including our parents, who was not totally for Mao was the enemy."
Relatedly, Mao urged students to create revolutionary committees to attack and remove professors. The students used these opportunities to pursue personal grudges or gain professional advantage.
Young people were instructed by the regime to “clear away the evil habits of the old society” and extinguish “the four olds”—old ideas, customs, habits and culture. “Sweep Away All Demons,” the state newspaper instructed.
During struggle sessions, the accused were dragged through streets and campuses, sometimes stadiums. It was important to have a jeering crowd; to add to the humiliation of the targeted individual. Many people falsely confessed, out of a misguided hope for mercy.
Mao and his fellow revolutionaries understood the power of mob humiliation.
They used it to terrorize the country into ideological conformity. They humiliated, terrorized, imprisoned, or killed anybody deemed guilty of even the slightest transgression.
One problem of driving terror too far, though, is that the population might be beaten into near total silence.
People will no longer speak to anyone about anything remotely connected to “dangerous” topics unless they are expressing the correct views about the Party line.
And even then, Berlin notes, “nobody can feel certain of the password from day to day.” The line is always shifting, so people will only speak in careful generalities, if at all.
“While large-scale terror ensures widespread obedience…it is possible to frighten people too much: if kept up, violent repression ends up leaving people totally unnerved and numb…Moreover, if people do not talk, the vast army of intelligence agents employed by the government will not be able to report clearly enough what goes on inside their heads, or how they would respond to this or that government policy.”
Regime officials have a twisted relationship with the populace. On the one hand, they want to control what they think. On the other hand, they want to know what they think.
They want you to like them. But they also want you to like them not because they forced you to, but because, well, they are just so darn likeable. So if they suppress free expression too much, they won’t be able to gauge the true attitudes of the citizens. Furthermore, if everyone is saying the correct thing all the time, what on earth will the poor intelligence agencies do for a living.
“The government cannot do without a minimum of knowledge of what is being thought. Although public opinion in the normal sense cannot be said to exist in the Soviet Union, the rulers must nevertheless acquaint themselves with the mood of the ruled…Hence, something must be done to stimulate the population into some degree of articulate expression: bans are lifted, ‘Communist self-criticism,’ ‘comradely discussion,’ something that almost looks like public debate is insistently invited.”
The regime encourages people to speak their minds. Go ahead, it’s okay. You have permission, they say.
As part of this process, the media is ordered to improve the morale of the public by printing unique opinions that, to some small degree, challenge the Party line.
But later, once the regime leaders have ensnared potential enemies, they shift the dialectic again.
“Once individuals and groups show their hand—and some of them inevitably betray themselves—the leaders know…whom they would be wise to eliminate if they are to preserve the ‘general line’…The guillotine begins to work again, the talkers are silenced. The inmates of this grim establishment, after their brief mirage of an easier life, are…forbidden to indulge in any interests.”
The artificial dialectic was used to great effect in Maoist China.
In 1949, Mao and his officials launched a campaign to eradicate any lingering influence of free thought in China.
Elites and ordinary citizens alike were interrogated. Many denounced each other in a bid to save themselves. Within months newspapers were closed, entire libraries were burned.
By 1956, many intellectuals and artists in China were demoralized by the excessive rigidity of the Party. They felt estranged from the regime.
In response, Mao and his functionaries encouraged citizens in China to openly express their views of the Communist Party. He announced the Hundred Flowers Campaign.
Mao’s infamous statement:
"The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science."
The Party lifted restrictions on free speech. Mao encouraged citizens to openly express their views.
A year later, in 1957, the Party enacted the Anti-Rightist campaign, imprisoning or executing those who had expressed dissent.
“Rightists” included critics of the communist government, intellectuals who appeared sympathetic to capitalism, and anyone who questioned one-party rule or state-run collectivization.
After purging the right, the regime then turned its attention to center-left intellectuals. Communist officials called these center-left thinkers “right wing intellectuals,” despite the fact that their views had not shifted.
The campaign was effective. It’s estimated there were between 1-2 million victims.
Mao later said he had “enticed the snakes out of their lairs.”
Stalin, Mao, and their functionaries in their respective regimes developed the artificial dialectic: An instrument used to “correct” the uncertainties of nature, of the vagaries of the invisible forces of the supposed Marxist historical dialectic.
The artificial dialectic is a way of enacting permanent revolution. It submerges society in a relentless state of neither peace nor war, but somewhere in between.
It is a truly impressive device, Berlin acknowledges.
“Its successful operation…demands great skill and even genius on the part of individual manipulators…In hands less skilfull or experienced or self-confident it could easily lead to a debacle to which human societies are not exposed under more traditional forms of government.”
The Soviet and Maoist regimes would allow terror to reach a point where people are about to become completely disillusioned, only to step back and allow for temporary breathing spells.
People could again experience pleasure and taste something resembling freedom.
This zigzagging is how totally corrupt and cynical regimes were able to control their populace. They understood that human misery must never be allowed to reach a point of desperation where death—suicide or murder—is preferable.
Berlin calls the communist artificial dialectic an “astonishing invention” that is so impressive that it rivals “the most ruthless and megalomaniac capitalist exploiter.”
By strategically shifting between periods of tranquility and terror, the Soviet and Maoist regimes developed a comprehensive instrument for breaking the wills of more than 1 billion human beings.
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