As you know, there is no hallmark of left-wing discourse so familiar as the double standard. How many times had we been challenged by our conservative opponents for the support (however “critical”) we gave to totalitarian states where values we claimed to champion — freedom and human rights — were absent, while we made ourselves enemies of the western democracies where (however flawed) they were defended. In the seventy years since the Bolshevik Revolution perhaps no other question had proved such an obstacle to our efforts to win adherents to the socialist cause.
In his reply, Kolakowski drew attention to three forms of the double standard that Thompson had employed and that were crucial to the arguments of the Left. The first was the invocation of moral standards in judging capitalist regimes on the one hand, while historical criteria were used to evaluate their socialist counterparts on the other. As a result, capitalist injustice was invariably condemned by the Left under an absolute standard, whereas socialist injustice was routinely accommodated in accord with the relative judgments of a historical perspective. Thus, repellent practices in the socialist bloc were placed in their “proper context” and thereby “understood” as the product of pre-existing social and political conditions — i.e., as attempts to cope with intractable legacies of a soon-to-be-discarded past.
Secondly, capitalist and socialist regimes were always assessed under different assumptions about their futures. Capitalist regimes were judged under the assumption that they could not meaningfully improve, while socialist regimes were judged on the opposite assumption that they would. Repressions by conservatives like Pinochet in Chile were never seen in the terms in which their apologists justified them — as necessary preludes to democratic restorations — but condemned instead as unmitigated evils. On the other hand, the far greater and more durable repressions of revolutionary regimes like the one in Cuba, were invariably minimized as precisely that — necessary (and temporary) stages along the path to a progressive future.
Finally, in left-wing arguments the negative aspects of existing socialism were always attributed to capitalist influences (survival of the elements of the old society, impact of anti-Communist “encirclement,” tyranny of the world market, etc.), while the reverse possibility was never considered. Thus Leftist histories ritualistically invoked Hitler to explain the rise of Stalinism (the necessity of a draconian industrialization to meet the Nazi threat) but never viewed Stalinism as a factor contributing to the rise of Hitler. Yet, beginning with the socialist assault on bourgeois democracy and the forced labor camps (which were a probable inspiration for Auschwitz) Stalinism was a far more palpable influence in shaping German politics in the Thirties than was Nazism in Soviet developments. The “Trotskyite conspiracy with the Mikado and Hitler”—the cabal which the infamous show trials claimed to expose—was a Stalinist myth; but the alliance that German Communists formed with the Nazi Party to attack the Social Democrats and destroy the Weimar Republic was an actual Stalinist plot. Without this alliance, the united parties of the Left would have formed an formidable barrier to the Nazis’ electoral triumph and Hitler might never have come to power.
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