There is a type of new media star that gets a lot of play on social media. They are mostly men and they attract mostly a young male audience. They deal in a simplistic, generalized commentary on psychology and social and political issues. It’s difficult to understand why they are so popular, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we found out years later that government agencies played a role in getting them boosted in social media and internet video platforms. They serve a useful role as distractions from things that matter while simultaneously guiding young men to “clean up their rooms” and avoid radical politics, or any kind of meaningful political engagement at all. They ridicule social justice warriors, political correctness, and identity politics, and they sometimes do this in an amusing way that is well deserved. But they hit their limits when they try to explain history and politics because they deal in nothing except the recycled tropes generated by American cold warriors in the 1950s: communism killed hundreds of millions, socialism has never worked, socialism is theft, socialism is hopelessly utopian, people who want an alternative economic model are deluded. There is no alternative. They think identity politics and the modern misnamed “liberal left” is associated with Marxism, unaware that these trends were nurtured by the CIA in order to discredit and weaken the radical left.
It is not a matter so much of what they talk about but what they don’t talk about: the enormous Pentagon budget, financialization of the economy, a looming repeat of the 2008 economic crisis, student and car loan debt crises, a planned economy for and by the wealthy, ecosystem collapse, the surveillance state, corporate control of media, privatization of public goods, growing wealth inequality, drone bombing, the expansion of NATO and antagonism of Russia and China, withdrawal from nuclear arms treaties. The millions of poorly educated people who follow these “conservative” podcasts and videos will hear nothing about these issues. They will hear only angry tirades about creeping socialism, the erosion of free speech on campus, social justice warriors, feminism, gender inequality, or political correctness, as if these deserve all our attention. They call themselves conservative, but I argue here that they are either too ignorant or too uninterested in politics to wear the label. If they are not ignorant, they deliberately deflect attention from pressing concerns, distort history, and miseducate their followers. They have joined and nurtured what Isaac Asimov called “the cult of ignorance,” in which people argue with the confidence that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”[i]
When I say they are ignorant, here is what I mean. The following quote was written by the American historian and diplomat George Kennan in 1947, in a document that cold warriors in President Truman’s administration used to justify the policy of containment toward the USSR. A year after he wrote this, he came out in favor of resolving tensions through dialog with the Soviet Union, expressing regrets about the extremism that was developing among American anti-communist politicians:
It is difficult to summarize the set of ideological concepts with which the Soviet leaders came into power. Marxian ideology, in its Russian-Communist projection, has always been in process of subtle evolution. The materials on which it bases itself are extensive and complex. But the outstanding features of Communist thought as it existed in 1916 may perhaps be summarized as follows: (a) that the central factor in the life of man, the factor which determines the character of public life and the “physiognomy of society,” is the system by which material goods are produced and exchanged; (b) that the capitalist system of production is a nefarious one which inevitably leads to the exploitation of the working class by the capital-owning class and is incapable of developing adequately the economic resources of society or of distributing fairly the material goods produced by human labor; (c) that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction and must, in view of the inability of the capital-owning class to adjust itself to economic change, result eventually and inescapably in a revolutionary transfer of power to the working class; and (d) that imperialism, the final phase of capitalism, leads directly to war and revolution.[ii]
In this case we can say George Kennan was a conservative worth taking seriously, and where I disagree with him I could have had a worthwhile discussion with him because he was not ignorant. He understood the ideology of America’s cold war opponent and was willing to explain it to his readers. His analysis lets us know that the opponent’s guiding philosophy presents a serious challenge, one which, by the way, still holds up in 2019 as we look back at the record of capitalist crises and wars waged on foreign nations. This sort of intellectual engagement is not possible with supposed thought leaders and intellectuals who only repeat what they believe are the self-evident truisms about political philosophy and historical events. People who were born after the cold war deserve a better history education than what they get in the podcasts and Youtube videos of people like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Stefan Molyneux and Steven Pinker, among others. I’m not sure why three of these four are Canadian, but I could guess that they were chosen for official boosting on social media because Canadians often fill the role of disinterested, reasonable “men in the middle.” They can uphold the status quo in the language of Americans without being Americans, which makes them convenient propaganda tools for US interests. At the government level, this phenomenon is seen in Canada helping the US with its war on Venezuela by leading the Lima Group of countries lined up behind a plan to once again illegally overthrow a foreign government.
The work of these new media stars has been critiqued in hundreds of articles and rival podcasts, and this fact may negate my efforts here, but I wrote my own critique anyway. I chose to base it on a debate that was held in 2018 by the Institute of Arts and Ideas. The question for debate was the following: Is violence ever justified in the pursuit of political or social aims, and where it is justified, how can we actually argue for it? Steven Pinker’s statements are a good illustration of the aforementioned ignorance of historical contexts and details, or a deliberate avoidance of them. The content of the debate provided a way to discuss the historical contexts and details that are missing from such popular entertainments, and it revealed that Steven Pinker should either question the biases of experts he refers to or gain some deeper knowledge on many of the matters he talks about. One doesn’t need to be a historian to talk about history, but as Tariq Ali simply told him during the debate, “It’s quite useful to know one’s history before making broad statements.” I also chose to focus on Steven Pinker’s work because of the four people mentioned above, he is the most highly esteemed and privileged because of his success as a best-selling author and highly-paid star academic at Harvard. Compared to the others, he has the least excuse to be trafficking in shoddy historical analysis.
Excerpts from the debate used for discussion are in italics. The full transcript is here.
Excerpts from and discussion of Philosophy for Our Times, Episode 131, Institute of Arts and Ideas
Moderator: Is violence ever justified in the pursuit of political or social aims, and where it is justified, how can we actually argue for it?
Tariq Ali: The struggle of people for their freedom has always involved violence because the people they’re trying to gain independence from deploy it as well, so the choice is either to sit down and do nothing or to hope that peaceful agitation wins the day—which it never has, with very few exceptions—and to throw the power over to those who occupy, oppress and kill people ad nauseam.
Steven Pinker: I wouldn’t agree. I guess I start from the premise that killing people is bad and killing more people is worse than killing fewer people, so even though I also don’t support terrorism, terrorists have killed a tiny number of people. The worst terror attack in history, 9-11, killed 3,000. Tariq listed a number of violent events in human history [the famous revolutions of the last 250 years]. We do not make the argument that these are good or justifiable. These are history’s disasters. Now I do believe that there are arguments, that there can be occasions in which violence is justified, if it is the only way to prevent greater violence.
Pinker employs a very limited definition of terrorism here to make his claim about the 9-11 attack. He chooses an example of non-state actors carrying out one spectacular politically motivated attack that killed 3,000 civilians in one day. Throughout the discussion he avoids framing other acts of violence, by states or non-state entities, as being intended to intimidate, terrify and deter. If he did operate with this broader definition of terrorism, then a large amount of structural violence and acts of war would have to be acknowledged for their effectiveness as methods of controlling and terrorizing populations.
Pinker resorts to an extremely simplistic understanding of the famous revolutions of history. He takes no account of their circumstances, and seems to have little knowledge of them, and equally little curiosity about them. Is this avoidance deliberate, or does he not know what he does not know? He is often hailed as a sort of “Dos Equis Guy“ of intellectuals, so it is strange that he exhibits such willful ignorance in this matter. Tariq Ali responded to him by pointing out:
Russia was an absolutist monarchy. Czarist rule was not particularly pleasant for the people prior Bolshevik Revolution. Large numbers of serfs were treated no better than slaves despite the emancipation declaration. So the logical conclusion of many of the arguments against the revolution implied that somehow what existed before was better. Putin says the same thing, by the way. That’s the official line now: worship of czars and czarism and the Orthodox Church, who carried out more pogroms in Europe prior to Hitler than any other regime. So let’s not forget that. Let’s not forget all the attempts that were made to reform these regimes by women. Prior to Lenin and the Bolsheviks you had a huge anarchist current led largely by women.
Tariq Ali could have also mentioned the fact that in 1917 Russian troops were exhausted from fighting WW I and in widespread rebellion against their officers. Lenin didn’t orchestrate that opposition. He was in exile when the czar was toppled. Events were just unfolding on their own while competing political parties and factions were scrambling to catch up with events.[iii]
Ali could have also added that in addition to considering what Russia was, we have to be aware of what it would have become without the Bolshevik Revolution. The February 1917 revolution brought Kerensky’s provisional government to power, but it collapsed in September, and in the void General Kornilov was about to set up a military dictatorship. How much violence would that have led to in the conditions that prevailed at the time? We have the late 20th century examples such as Iran, Indonesia and Chile to look to for the answer.
The Bolsheviks were able to take power at this time because they had the support of the rebelling soldiers, not to mention large segments of the rest of society. They had been operating peacefully and democratically with other parties that were vying for power. The Russian bourgeoisie was split between one faction that wanted to continue the war against Germany, and another that sided with Germany. Socialists were split on how much to compromise with these bourgeois elements. Russian soldiers didn’t want to go back to the front, and the party of peasants and workers seemed a lot more appealing to them than either bourgeois faction. Kornilov turned around when he realized that most of the military had gone over to the Bolsheviks.
As for the tyranny that came afterwards, intellectuals like Pinker never ask the obvious question: what might the Soviet Union have become if it had not had to constantly fight a counter-revolution waged by external enemies? Counter-revolutionary forces operate on very cynical premises. They know they can discredit a new government by putting it into a state of war in which, as in all wars, even in Pinker’s sacred “liberal democracies,” civil liberties will be suppressed. This is especially true when very poor material conditions exist in the targeted country. When they go to extremes, counter-revolutionary forces sow complete chaos and deliberately create what Pinker refers to as “history’s disasters.” Pinker should refer to his own words, in this case what he says in this debate when arguing that no one should resort to violence against a violent state: “… if you want to argue that violence is bad, that states should not commit it, that is my point… If violence is not justified, it’s not justified.” According to Pinker’s pacifist reasoning, after a revolution the dispossessed capitalist class should give up and go along with the new order.
Steven Pinker: Now did the events that we just heard about [revolutions] result in the reduction of violence, prevention of killing of even greater numbers, which I suppose, could be used as a utilitarian argument justifying violence? The answer is, in virtually all the cases, no. The French Revolution was a disaster that killed two million people, led to the rise of Napoleon, perhaps the world’s first totalitarian fascist dictator who began wars of conquest that killed an additional four million people, led to the restoration of slavery, to the restoration of the monarchy, and a delay of democracy in France by perhaps a century. The Russian Revolution killed several million, led to the Russian civil war which killed another nine million, led to the rise of Stalin, who killed 20 million.
Again, the Chinese Revolution, perhaps the most disastrous event in history, led to the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, which killed perhaps 30 to 40 million people altogether. Time and again, violent revolution or violent war, in addition to the moral harm of mass murder, and again, I mean murder—we’re talking about millions or tens of millions of people—does not result in a stable peaceful state that saves the lives of even more—quite the contrary.
The first thing to note here is the way Pinker makes frequent use of the verb “led to.” He is a linguist and talented writer, so he knows how to effectively attribute agency to such abstractions as “revolution.” In this case he creates the impression that revolution is a generalized impersonal force of nature that follows fixed rules. It always leads inevitably to massive levels of violence. According to him, revolutions don’t have specific historical contexts, and they don’t come after long attempts to arrive at peaceful solutions. And he seems to think that revolutions begin by the deliberate design of certain bad actors who have a preference for violent action. The reactionary opportunists and provocateurs who initiate wars and coup d’etats fit this description, but the initial fall of government and seizing of power in the French and Russian Revolutions was relatively calm compared to the civil wars and foreign invasions that followed.
When Pinker talks about France in the 1780-1820 period, he states that the chain of causation of violent events begins with the revolution. However, he could just as easily go back farther and say feudalism leads to revolution and then blame all the subsequent violence on the monarchy and the Church. In addition, since he mentioned the Napoleonic wars, Pinker extends his area of concern to all of Europe, so the pre-revolution violence in Europe must also be taken into account. There were horrible wars in the century before 1789 such as the Wars of Religion, and the Seven Years War, and there was the Inquisition that existed in several countries from the 16th to 19th centuries. Thus one cannot with any certainty blame all the violence that occurred in the 1780-1820 period on the revolution. The revolutionary leader Robespierre died in 1794, so he cannot be held responsible for Napoleon rising to power five years later.
It would be much more reasonable to view such a transformative time as the result of technological advances and social changes that led to the industrial revolution and a new class called the bourgeoisie. Some kind of violent upheaval was unavoidable, unless the anciens régimes simply stepped aside and gave up power, which of course never happened.
Just as feudalism ended in revolution, we could say that the cause of the Bolshevik Revolution was WW I, which was fought for the interest of bankers in Britain, France, the United States and Germany, as well as for the imperial powers’ drive to secure oil resources in the Middle East. The war had a death toll of 23 million, and it was socialists who cried out before the war that the way to avoid it was through the solidarity of working class resistance throughout Europe and Russia.[iv] In 1917, the provisional government in Russia could have stayed in power if it had simply resisted the urgings of France and Britain and followed the popular desire to get out of the war. Pinker could just simply say imperialism “always leads to greater brutality and violence,” but his undeclared bias (defense of the neoliberal economic order) cannot lead him to such conclusions.
Pinker also notes that Napoleon re-instituted slavery, but perhaps he doesn’t even know that the revolutionary government he argues against abolished it in 1794. Nor does he acknowledge that the other force that led to it being abolished was the other revolution of the 1790s led by slaves in Haiti. A decade later they succeeded in winning their freedom again by defeating Napoleon, who described his war on Haiti as his greatest mistake.[v] Does Pinker not know such things, or does he simply evade talking about them? If the answer to the former question is yes, he doesn’t deserve the accolades he receives as one of the world’s greatest intellectuals.
Steven Pinker: A recent study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth actually looked over the last century at violent and non-violent resistance movements to put the Gandhian hypothesis to a test, that that there are ways of overcoming tyranny using all of the tactics that Gandhi worked out. They decided to count all of the resistance movements of the 20th century. They divided them into violent ones and non-violent ones, putting aside the question of which was more moral, that is, which murdered fewer people. They just asked the question of which is more effective. Now it’s not the case that violent resistance movements always succeed or the non-violent ones fail, or vice versa, but if you count them up, they found that non-violent resistance movements were three times as effective as violent ones.
This research finding may seem noteworthy, but one has to ask how the effectiveness of non-violence could be defined and whether other factors besides non-violence had an effect on the outcome. Pinker says successful non-violent methods brought about regime change, or the establishment of a liberal democracy, but liberal democracies are often systems of oligarchic power and don’t lead to lasting, meaningful improvements in the lives of the masses. We can’t assume they are the ultimate achievement in human history or the only measure of successful social transformation. The “color revolutions” (a term defined by an emphasis on nonviolent resistance) that swept through the Middle East and Northern Africa in 2011 produced very mixed results to say the least, and it was never clear what external forces fomented them and for what purposes. Does anyone these days want to talk about the success of the “Coffee Revolution” in Yemen?
Another factor is that behind every occasion when non-violence won a concession from power, there are examples of violent revolution in other times and places that motivated the powerful to give way in order to avoid losing later in a violent struggle. US president Franklin Roosevelt was able to implement the New Deal in the 1930s because of the mounting threat of worldwide communist revolution. The New Deal met with its counter-revolution in the form of the anti-communist purges of the 1950s and the establishment of the security state within the United States government, but it succeeded for a while.[vi] New Deal reforms, middle-class prosperity, and social welfare programs all went into accelerated decline after the fall of the Soviet Union, for obvious reasons. As long as the Soviet Union existed, American oligarchs had some motivation to demonstrate that living standards for the working class were better under capitalism.
Steven Pinker: The final observation is that in a survey of what leads to stable democracies, inspired in part by the 2003 invasion of Iraq—which, I think, we all agree was not a successful measure to install a peaceful liberal democracy—that actually fits into a pattern that decapitations of an existing tyrannical regime generally don’t result in a sustainable democracy.
Throughout this debate Pinker makes no distinctions between the violence that occurs in revolution, wars, coups, and forms of domestic protest limited to specific issues. They are all supposedly the same and can be discussed as a single phenomenon. The UN Charter defines aggression of one nation against another as the supreme crime, but Pinker conflates this crime with domestic struggles to change specific legislation and with efforts of people to overthrow their own government. Violence can just be examined as a single tactic applied in all situations.
Steven Pinker: I’ll add one final observation. I’m Canadian, so we actually did achieve independence from Britain nonviolently, and took a little bit longer than the United States, but the American Revolution was a pretty bloody and brutal mess as well, and Canada as a result is today one of the most stable, least violent and most democratic societies on earth.
This is another example of a pre-existing incidence of violent resistance that caused a ruling power to prefer a peaceful transition. Canada owes its peaceful transition to the bloody war fought by the United States in the previous century. Britain did not want to repeat the same experience. In any case, Canada did not really achieve independence in 1867. International law defines an independent state as one in which the laws of no other country have effect, but Canada had no independent foreign policy until 1931. The constitution was not fully repatriated until 1982. Canada was allowed no independent choice in whether to join WW I, and when Britain declared war in 1939, Canada waited a few days to declare war in order to make a point that it was using its new independence gained with the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Canada later went along with the development of the atomic weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today Canada assumes vassal state status in the NATO alliance, obeying—to its own detriment—US foreign policy prerogatives in relations with Ukraine, Venezuela and China, among others.
Tariq Ali: Gandhi was never a dogmatic believer in non-violence. When it served his needs, he came out and supported violence.
Steven Pinker: Well, I think there is a justification for just war in particular cases where the measured use of violence results in greater saving of lives and greater human flourishing than abjuring violence and perhaps the battle against Isis is one, perhaps the Second World War. Opposition to Hitler is another, but those are fairly circumscribed cases and the vast majority of uses of violence, and most of the ones that we’ve heard today don’t fall into that category. Not only did they create harm in the infliction of violence themselves, but their aftermath was even greater brutality and violence.
Pinker repeats a point he has already made, so I will repeat again what he overlooks: the counter-revolution is always the most significant cause of the “greater brutality and violence.” As the joke goes: Admit it. Communism is good in theory, but in practice it always ends up being destroyed in a military coup financed by the CIA. Nonetheless, there are rare cases where a violent uprising led to lasting successful socialist societies. The Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico in 1994 resulted in the establishment of a semi-autonomous region that manages its own health care, education, transportation and agriculture, and it inspired other movements for social justice throughout Mexico. Twenty years later, the Zapatistas insisted that their success came from negotiating from a position of strength. They refused to disarm.[vii]
Steven Pinker: And we do know that there are many cases in which, in fact, violence is not needed to bring about massive changes. The empowerment of women is a great example. All the victories of feminism in the 20th century did not result because there was a violent women’s liberation front.
This is another example of how Pinker folds all forms of violence together. Female emancipation was a change in legislation, not a revolution. It was certainly a very long-overdue positive change, but there was something else serving as a background consideration aside from the non-violent methods. Marxism and Leninism held female emancipation as core policies, so the success of socialist revolutions and socialist movements definitely exerted an influence in the struggle in capitalist countries. Giving women the vote at this stage of history was almost a no-brainer. It was a major progressive change that cost the ruling class nothing. It gave nothing to the working class since women were represented in all social classes at the same proportions as men. They would continue to vote in line with their family and class interests, or, like men, against them in some cases under the influence of religion, cultural traditions, and the mass media. The fact that feminist struggles continued and still exist shows that getting the vote was not the ultimate achievement. As the old saying goes, if voting changed anything substantially, it would be illegal. Feminism is still split between radicals aligned with revolutionary struggle and liberals who eagerly seek positions within the existing military and economic institutions.[viii]
For information on the terrorist tactics used by British suffragists, see the BBC report “Kitty Marion: The actress who became a a ‘terrorist.’” These tactics involved arson, acid placed on letters that burned postmen, bomb throwing, and placement of bombs in crowded locations with intent to kill (though the bombs that were placed to kill and injure all failed to detonate). The researcher quoted in the article summed up, “There is no doubt that this had all the hallmarks of what we would today define as terrorism.”[ix]
In Britain, female property owners over the age of thirty won the right to vote in 1918. In 1928, the franchise was extended to all women over age 21. In the United States the 19th Amendment passed in 1918. Was it just coincidence that these changes occurred shortly after WW I and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917? These two events had left the ruling class in an existential crisis, so extending the voting franchise was a sensible and easy concession to make.
Steven Pinker: However, even the Second World War… I’m going to say something that is mildly heretical here. It did not prevent the Holocaust. It’s unclear how many Jews, for example, were saved by the Allied campaign. In fact, many Jews were saved by non-violent action such as in Sweden and Denmark. A lot of the activities of the Allies during World War II cannot be justified, such as the bombing of civilians in Germany. It’s a little bit of a heretical question, but from today’s perspective, if we ask how many of the goals could have been achieved by resistance, by internal sabotage, by the techniques that brought down the Soviet Empire, it’s a question worth asking. I suspect that in the case of World War II there was no choice but to fight Hitler with violence, but still the question of how much violence, how much good did it did, what the alternatives were need to be raised.
Pinker has a point, but he is making a very unusual one, especially for someone whose Jewish grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe to Canada in the 1920s (likewise his support for the Nazi collaborators who created the Holodomor narrative). Not many Jews were saved by the Allied campaign because by the time the Western powers opened up the Western front there were not many left to save. By trying to make some sort of point here he is simply making it obvious that the war against Hitler’s Germany should have started much earlier. He fails to mention the very significant support that Germany received from American financial firms, oil companies and manufacturers during the 1930s. The American financial and industrial elites were much more concerned with supporting Franco in Spain, doing business with Germany and Italy, and pushing back communism than they were with fighting fascism. These interests were also instrumental in helping many European fascist war criminals take refuge in the West after the war so that they could help the CIA in the anti-communist cold war effort.[x] Pinker also seems to be unaware that Hitler, inspired by the genocide of Native Americans, had plans to clear Eastern Europe and Russia of its Slavic populations in order to give Germans their lebensraum or “living space.” No amount of peaceful resistance could have stopped the German war machine and persuaded the Nazi regime to abandon these policies.
Pinker makes the valid point that there were many unnecessary atrocities committed by the Allies. When it was obvious that Germany and Japan were going to lose, the Allies could have patiently sought out terms of surrender and refrained from the atrocities of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the rush to end the war and demonstrate the power of nuclear bombs was motivated by a desire to limit Soviet influence after the war. For example, once Stalin declared war on Japan, the United States’ greatest concern was that he would gain control over all of Korea and more parts of Japan than just the Kuril Islands. Pinker argues in favor of anti-communist policies, so this presents a contradiction in his argument.
Pinker mentions some examples of resistance and internal sabotage, but fails to mention that the most significant efforts were carried out by communist partisans in France, Italy and Yugoslavia, and these were violent resistance movements in which many of the resisters were tortured and killed. The resistance in Yugoslavia was particularly important because it drew German forces away from Russia and enabled the Russian victory in Stalingrad—the event which was the beginning of the end for Germany. Germany repaid in the 1990s by being the most eager agitator for the breakup of Yugoslavia and the demonization of Serbia.[xi] Again, one has to ask: Does Pinker not know all of this?
In one of his earlier books (The Blank Slate, 2002), Pinker resorted to a standard anti-communist trope equating Nazi national “socialism” with the Marxist socialism that Lenin and Stalin pursued. He wrote, “… an accurate appraisal of the cause of state genocides must look for the beliefs common to Nazism an Marxism that launched them on their parallel trajectories.”[xii] Both, allegedly, were utopian projects to rewrite the blank slate of human nature, regardless of the cost in blood. This passage in the book makes much of this utopianism, as well as propaganda and limits on dissent in communist societies, as if there are no parallels to be found in religious beliefs and ideologies in the capitalist world. Neoliberalism is a utopian project, perhaps more so than Marxism ever was.
The equation of Nazism with Marxism insults the 25 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives doing the majority of the fighting that defeated Hitler on the eastern front. It is based on the exaggerated figures discussed below (section 9), and on the misunderstandings of the nature of the political violence that occurred in the USSR. Pinker shows no understanding of fascism as the end result of capitalism and imperialism in crisis. German “socialism” was based on the private ownership of the means of production. It generated enormous private wealth and plunder. From 1904 to 1908, a German “state genocide” had already been inflicted on the colonized population of Namibia, long before Hitler rose to power. When Pinker speaks of “state genocide” in this section of The Blank Slate, he makes no mention of Namibia or Southeast Asia in the 1960s. The index lists numerous pages referring to Hitler and Stalin, but there is no mention of Indonesia or Suharto, to cite just one example of many omitted examples of non-Nazi, non-Marxist state violence. Finally, this section also associates the Chinese Communist Party with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Pinker evinces no knowledge of two essential aspects of the Cambodian genocide: firstly, that communists throughout the world dismissed the Khmer Rouge as a perverse distortion of Marxism, and secondly, that the Khmer Rouge were originally backed by the CIA as a way of antagonizing Vietnam—giving Vietnam its own “Vietnam” as some American officials put it.[xiii], [xiv] Perhaps they didn’t imagine that such a strategy could lead to a genocide, but they repeated it in the 1990s by giving support to Tutsis exiles in Uganda to wage war on Rwanda.[xv]
Another outrageous comment in this section was the allusion to the “peaceful techniques” that brought down the Soviet “Empire.” First of all, political scientists define empire as an extension of capitalism, so the term doesn’t apply to the Soviet Union. Imperialism exploits the wealth of colonies to enrich the private interests at the center of the empire. The Soviet system was set up to expand socialism and liberate the peasants and working classes from local and foreign domination. One can debate what the Soviet Union actually was in terms of its foreign aid and its efforts to support socialist governments throughout the world, but it never plundered its alleged “empire” to gain profit and create billionaires in Russia. The flow of wealth out of the center of power became painfully obvious to beneficiaries of Soviet aid such as Cuba when Gorbachev withdrew support in the late 1980s. Cuba was thrown into an economic crisis, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as David Montgomery reported in 2008:
Cuba stopped exporting sugar and began to grow its own food again. Within a decade, the Cuban diet rebounded to its former level without food imports or the use of agrochemicals. The Cuban experience shows that agroecology can form a viable basis for agriculture without industrial methods or biotechnology. Unintentionally, the U.S. trade embargo turned Cuba into a nation-scale experiment in alternative agriculture.[xvi]
Second, the techniques that brought down the Soviet Union amounted to foreign intervention in a sovereign nation, one of the serious crimes against national sovereignty as defined by the UN Charter. The US spent hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the 1980s on overt and covert propaganda campaigns and political agitation, and economic warfare was carried out through sanctions and the manipulation of oil prices. Boris Yeltsin had handlers in the CIA.[xvii] Carter and Reagan sponsored Islamic mercenaries led by Osama bin Laden in order to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Reagan spent outrageously on the military just to force the Soviet Union to divert resources to weapons manufacture. He also pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war just to create panic and force the Soviets to concentrate on nuclear disarmament rather than on revolutionary struggles in the Third World. There was no violent conflict between the US and the USSR, but the result after 1991 for former Soviets was massive hunger (a deliberately induced famine?), economic collapse, robbery of public assets, depletion of savings and pension funds, and the instant dislocation of millions of Russian citizens who now lived outside of their home country in former Soviet republics.[xviii] No worries, though. This is not violence, apparently. American officials and public commentators like Pinker alternately say two things about the disappearance of the Soviet Union. When put on the spot about meddling in the internal affairs of a foreign nation, they say that the interference didn’t exist—that the Soviet Union collapsed on its own accord. When they are not on the defensive about this issue, they proudly say “we brought down communism” or “we won the cold war.”
Tariq Ali: the other point worth making is that violence, one sort of violence, is killing people. Another sort of violence is structural violence: the famines in India. Who took the decision? The British war cabinet under Churchill. Millions died. Latin America: Structural violence against people.
Steven Pinker: Well, if there is a deliberate imposition of a famine such as the Holodomor by the Soviet Union against Ukraine, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which was some combination of malice and incompetence, if it was intended or not prevented when it could have been prevented, that would count as violence. I think a lot of what’s called structural violence could be defined as not violence. I believe Lenin was also mistaken. There are plenty of examples in which governments have relinquished power without violence. There has been a massive wave of democratization since the 1970s. The fascist governments in Spain and Portugal, many of the military and right-wing governments in East Asia in Latin America—many of them ceded power without violence. Now of course we also have a transition…
It is notable that here the topic was the violence of imperialism (deliberate British choices to let India suffer a famine that killed millions), but Pinker shifted the conversation back to his preferred target. He brought up the Holodomor, which, unfortunately for his argument, has been proven to be a fabricated holocaust created in the 1980s by the Nazi collaborators whom the CIA helped settle in Canada and the United States. The famine was caused by a drought (one of many in the modern and czarist eras) that occurred in the midst of agricultural reforms in the USSR. There was no deliberate plan to starve Ukrainians. The famine was also present in other parts of the USSR at that time. Even if Stalin had been cruel enough to want to starve Ukrainians, for no reason at all, the region was too strategically important for him to want to alienate the population or to empty it of people who could defend it in the coming war with Germany.[xix]
The famine in the USSR occurred at the same time as the Dust Bowl in the United States, but no one has ever tried to frame that event as a deliberate genocide engineered by Franklin Roosevelt. The Dust Bowl left 500,000 Americans homeless, destroyed valuable soils, and killed an untold number of people through dust pneumonia and malnutrition. Then again, ideologues could try to blame it on Russia because WW I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war and the drought had destroyed Russia’s ability to export wheat. With high global demand for wheat, American farmers began to over-exploit the soils of the plains. Then drought occurred during the Depression along with an absence of debt relief for farmers or a federal agriculture policy that could have prevented the catastrophe. But as analysts like Pinker would say, the Bolshevik Revolution must have led to all this.
Pinker also resorts to quoting the vastly inflated figures of Mao’s and Stalin’s millions of victims. Post-revolutionary violence in China cannot be considered in isolation from the violence of the civil war and Japanese occupation that preceded it. Utsa Patnaik notes that in the anti-communist writings describing Mao as responsible for a genocide, over three fifths of the “Great Leap Forward deaths” are attributed to demographic deficits. This same technique of drawing such conclusions from demographic deficits would find that Franklin Roosevelt killed 7-8 million African Americans the 1930s.[xx]
During the famine in China in the early 1960s, Christian peace activists asked President Kennedy to send food aid to China, and he responded by asking, “Do you mean you would feed your enemy when he has his hands on your throat?”[xxi] Kennedy said this at a time when China and the US were not at war. China had not attacked the United States. Kennedy simply stated the natural assumption, which even the activists apparently didn’t question, which was that China’s opposition to US involvement in Southeast Asia amounted to it having its hands on America’s throat. Kennedy added that he would like to send food aid, but Congress would never allow it.
In the Soviet Union, there was a period of terror that can’t be denied, but there are many controversies about the number of victims and how much of it Stalin was responsible for. The convenient meme that there were “100 million victims of communism” is obviously a myth that came from the motivations of anti-communist zealots to inflate the figures. When people start to quote such large numbers, they cross a point at which every dead person is indirectly a victim of whatever ideology they are trying to demonize.
The historian Grover Furr discovered that most Western anti-communist scholars were fed a steady diet of lies and deliberate mis-translations by sympathizers in Russia and Eastern Europe. Stalin faced numerous challenges to his power, many of them assisted by foreign powers, as Furr relates:
We know now from primary source evidence that Yezhov, who was the head of the NKVD, the internal police directorate, acted directly against Stalin’s and the Soviet leadership’s intentions…The loyalty of the military commanders was in grave doubt… The NKVD appeared to be the only force that the Soviet power could rely upon. It did not become clear until much later that Yezhov himself was conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow the government and party leadership, and was using massive executions of innocent people to stir up resentment. For the next year or more Stalin was flooded with reports of conspiracies and revolts from all over the Soviet Union… It is important to ideologically anti-communist researchers that these mass murders be seen as Stalin’s plan and intention. Anti-communist Russian researcher Vladimir Nikolayevich Haustov is honest enough to admit that the evidence does not bear this out. He admits the existence of a major conspiracy by Yezhov and concedes that Stalin was deceived by him. Haustov admits that Stalin acted in good faith on the basis of evidence presented to him by Yezhov, much of which must have been false. Yezhov himself admits this in the confessions of his that we now have.[xxii]
For a more legible pdf version of the above document, with its sources, go here.
I will end this segment with a quote by Seumas Milne that sums up the problem with demonizing ideological adversaries and equating Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin:
The impact of this cold war victors’ version of the past has been to relativize the unique crimes of Nazism, bury those of colonialism and feed the idea that any attempt at radical social change will always lead to suffering, killing and failure… There is no major 20th-century political tradition without blood on its hands. But the battle over history is never really about the past—it’s about the future.[xxiii]
Tariq Ali: There were huge acts of violence in [South] Korea, huge acts of violence against the population by the military. A revolution in Portugal toppled that particular dictatorship, a revolution which started in 1974 and ended in 1975, and the only reason violence couldn’t be used against that was the military was split and a large section of the Portuguese army and soldiers fought with the people. So it’s quite useful to know one’s history before making broad statements.
Steven Pinker: You can’t use the fact that a regime itself committed violence as a justification of violence, particularly when they were overthrown with very little violence.
Tariq Ali landed a good punch here by mentioning the usefulness of knowing one’s history, but he could have gone further into this topic by mentioning the important history of violent struggle against Portuguese rule in Guinea Bissau up to the time of the revolution in Portugal in 1974. It was the war for independence, led by Amilcar Cabral, that exhausted the Portuguese military and caused military officers to lead the “peaceful” revolution. The Portuguese empire was folded up immediately afterwards, yet the violence did not end for the formerly colonized who were left behind in Angola, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and East Timor.
Ali could have also mentioned that many peaceful transitions, such as the achievement of East Timorese independence, occur simply because an American president picks up the phone and tells some long-trusted ally, like Indonesia in this case, that the game is over. The US threatens to end arms sales and military cooperation, then the miraculous peaceful transition occurs—a transition that could have happened just as easily twenty years earlier.[xxiv]
Steven Pinker: In the United States the rate of rape, of domestic violence, and domestic murder have fallen by about 75% since records were first kept in the 1970s, and, as far as I know, there was no violence that was meted out in order to achieve those goals. There were arguments. There were protests. There was legislation. There was activism, but there was no anti-rape women’s liberation front involving guerrilla action, or terrorism, or armed resistance. There was fantastic success through the democratic process.
This is another instance of Pinker conflating cultural and legislative changes with revolutionary transformation and class struggle, and here he introduces a red herring argument. It is simply preposterous to bring up this notion of women using violent resistance against men in order to solve the problem of male violence against women. Who would they target as the persons in power who sanction forms of violence that are already illegal? There is no central committee of men who have the power to stop individual men from committing violence against women. It is simply not a relevant topic when one is talking about ways to solve this problem. There is an argument to be made for resistance by any means necessary to create the social conditions that will lead to a less crime and violence. Public education, justice system reform, ending wars abroad, health care, child care and economic security would lead to fewer boys becoming violent, alienated and miserable men. They would also lead to more women having higher self-regard and not needing to depend on abusive men. Sensible people know that it would be better to focus on the broader goals of social reform.
Tariq Ali: Here’s a choice: constant terror attacks by tiny Palestinian groups, nothing on the scale of the Israeli attacks, or a peaceful BDS movement. What happens to a people when they are told they can do neither and the entire corpus of Western governments and their human rights do absolutely nothing except pander to this?
Steven Pinker: I think it is certainly much more justified then an Intifada, yeah.
Elif Sarican: What about the violence of the Israeli state? Is that not terrorism?
Steven Pinker: It’s not terrorism. I think it’s state violence and states do commit violence, but if you want to argue that violence is bad, that states should not commit it, that is my point. You can’t say violence is justified but not when Israelis do it. If violence is not justified, it’s not justified.
Here Pinker makes a reluctant admission that non-violent protest against Israel is “more justified” than an Intifada, but he suggests there is apparently a scale of justifiability for protest against Israel—it is only “more justified”—thus the suggestion is that BDS is therefore not completely justified. Why the reluctance to talk about Israeli violence and the original sin of dispossessing Palestinians of their homes? Despite what he says, Israeli violence is clearly terrorism because, aside from whatever immediate objectives it might have, its overall desired effect is to deter and terrorize.
Norman Finkelstein finds that a good case to compare Israel to is the dispossession of the Cherokee in the United States, but this entire debate had very little to say about the original sins of settler colonialism in Britain (and by proxy Canada), the United States and Israel.[xxv] The participants talked a lot about China, Russia and France, but very little about Britain, Canada (that shining example of peaceful liberal democracy), Israel and the United States, despite Erif Sarican’s and Tariq Ali’s attempts to steer the conversation in that direction. Considering that the people on the stage all had roots in Britain and the United States, and that they conducted the debate in Britain, in English, the debate could have been based on the principle that we should look first at the known and knowable consequences of our own past and present actions. This is comparable to Jordan Peterson’s advice to start changing the world by first cleaning up one’s own room. The debate topic could have been addressed quite fully if it had been focused on the history of violence of these imperial powers.
If there is still any doubt that Steven Pinker has gone off on a strange tangent in his academic career, I finish by pointing that he is now promoting the idea that the mass media should report more good news so that the social ills of fatalism and radicalism can be overcome. If I didn’t know the source, I would think this notion came from someone young and uneducated who had no understanding of what journalists do. Everyone in the business knows: if it bleeds, it leads. Some things are getting better, but people are capable of figuring that out for themselves. And things got better because pessimists of the past focused on the bad news and made some optimism possible. An evolutionary psychologists should be able to understand that news about what might harm me will be more valuable than news about the normal functioning of the world that I can take for granted. This silly campaign illustrates that this type of intellectual functions as a control mechanism for the powerful to distract the masses from the urgent problems of the day. This shifting of attention to good news would increase the complacency and complicity of the liberal class in their incremental acceptance of the drift of our civilization to the extreme right, into an inverted totalitarianism in which corporations have “effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent” while the outward appearances of democracy and public debate remain intact.[xxvi]
For more on this topic listen to the episode 58 of the Citations Needed podcast: The Neoliberal Optimism Industry.
[ii] George F. Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947), The Council of Foreign Relations, 566-582.
[iii] Caleb Maupin, “The Actual Nature of Revolution,” March 11, 2019. This and other work by Caleb Maupin is an outstanding example of the in-depth historical and political analysis that is argued for in this paper.
[iv] Henry Moreigne, “Dernier discours et dernière mise en garde de Jean Jaurès,” Agorovox, July 31, 2013. Translated by Dennis Riches here: Jean Jaurès, 1914, last speech before his assassination, just weeks before the outbreak of WW I.”
[v] Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg, Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (London: Pluto Press, 2017), Chapter 5.
[vi] David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (Harper Perennial, 2015), Chapter 8.
[ix] Megha Mohan, “Kitty Marion: The actress who became a ‘terrorist,’“ BBC News, May 27, 2018.
[x] David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard, Chapter 5.
[xi] Harold Hudson Channer, “Interview with Professor Sean Gervasi, Institute of International and Economic Problems, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.” Conversations with Harold Hudson Channer, Recorded on February 24th, 1993.
[xii] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking, 2002), 157.
[xiii] Caleb Maupin, “Pushing Vietnam Against China: Kissinger and Brzezinski in Southeast Asia,” The Octant, October 3, 2018.
[xiv] Adam Jones, ed., Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 46. See also Kelvin Rowley, “Second Life, Second Death: The Khmer Rouge After 1978,” GSP Working Paper, 24 (2004): “For at least some American officials, a desire to avenge their own humiliation in Vietnam was also important. They relished the idea of turning Cambodia into ‘Vietnam’s Vietnam,’ with little concern for what this would mean for Cambodians.”
[xvii] Sean Gervasi, “’Spyless Coup’ or Democratic Breakthrough? Western Intervention in the U.S.S.R,” Covert Action Information Bulletin Number 39 (Winter 1991-92). From the conclusion of the article: “Conservatives in this country are now giving their own answers to these questions. Newspapers boast of a ‘global anti-communist putsch’ and of ‘spyless coups.’ NED [a US government funded propaganda organization] privately speaks of its ‘vital assistance’ to the ‘Victories of the democratic movements,’ and Mr. Yeltsin thanks the founder of that organization for his ‘contribution.’ A candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination praises Mr. Reagan for ‘rolling back communism.’”
[xix] Ekaterina Blinova, “Holodomor Hoax: West’s ‘Golden Embargo’ and Soviet Famine of 1932-33,” Sputnik News, December 11, 2015.
[xx] Utsa Patnaik, “On Famine and Measuring ‘Famine Deaths,’” in Thinking Social Justice in India: Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner, eds. Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi, and Krishna Raj (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2002).
[xxi] James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (Orbis, 2008), Chapter 6.
[xxii] Grover Furr, “Grover Furr’s BLOOD LIES Disproves Tim Snyder’s BLOODLANDS’ Accusations Against Stalin and USSR,” YouTube (Joe Friendly), November 18, 2014.
[xxiii] Seumas Milne, “The now routine equation of Stalin and Hitler both distorts the past and limits the future,” The Guardian, September 12, 2002.
[xxv] “Is Israel An Apartheid State? With Norman Finkelstein,” The Jimmy Dore Show, March 20, 2019.