Friday, April 23, 2010

Moral Cretinism Part III
Longing for Big Brother

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

In two previous postings I looked at two other examples of morally cretinistic points of view. Both of them were intellectually lightweight as well as being morally bankrupt. In this example we have something that is intellectually heavyweight but just as much morally bankrupt and yes cretinistic.

The piece I will look at today is one of the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (1908-1961).1 The work is Humanism and Terror.2 The book is in many respects a typical work of the French twentieth century philosophical school(s). It is in many places highly obtuse and rather difficult. Further it must be remembered that Merleau-Ponty was in many respects an Existential thinker, much concerned with the issue of responsibility and how people relate to each other. Also Merleau-Ponty’s writings are extremely important for twentieth pcentury philosophical notions of reality, epistemology, and phenomenology.3

Humanism and Terror is quite simply an apologia for the Stalinist terror. The fact that it is relatively complex in argument and that then Communists also denounced the book, mainly because it was not sufficiently subservient to Communist / Stalinist shibboleths,4 should not detract from the fact that the book is basically an apologia for terror.

Now in many respects Humanism and Terror, is an aberration in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s career. Shortly after writing it he abandoned much of its argument and reverted back to a position of being highly critical of the Soviet Union and Stalinism in general.5

It is important to set the book into its context in order to understand why Merleau-Ponty went off the rails so to speak. In this case it is important to remember that France had just emerged from the Second World having been occupied for most of it (1940-1944), and that the French Communists had been heavily involved in the resistance to the Nazi occupation. Also important was the role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany. All of this gave Communism and the Soviet Union enormous prestige in the minds of many intellectuals in Europe.

To this was allied the desire to avoid entanglement in another war after the recent appearance of the last devastating one. For a while it appeared that after the war it might be possible for France and much of Western Europe to become a “third way” between the Soviet Union and America. Any strong alliance with America would foreclose this possibility. So there was intellectual resistance to a firm alliance with the rising wave of anti-Soviet antagonism. Finally in many respects many intellectuals saw in rising anti-Soviet agitation something very similar to the rise of Nazism. Of course the belief, not unfounded, among many intellectuals that there was a movement towards a preventive war against the Soviet Union was also a factor in generating pro-Soviet intellectual beliefs. This is combined with a fear that the emerging western alliance against the USSR would preclude any sort of independent policy for Europe.6

Now Merleau-Ponty, wrote his book in large part in response to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon,7 which is Arthur Koestler’s great novel about the Great Purges in Russia. It important to remember that Arthur Koestler, a former Hungarian Communist who became quite disillusioned about Communism because of the Great Purge, was the object of sustained hysterical attack from Communists and fellow travellers because of his book. Nowadays it is rather hard to see, or more accurately read, what the fuss was about. Anyone reading the novel would note right away that compared to what we do know about the Great Terror the horrors in the novel, albeit real, are pretty tame.8

What seems to have truly infuriated Merleau-Ponty about Koestler’s novel is that Koestler’s “hero” Rubashov seems to have had a very crude and limited understanding of Marxism. Merleau-Ponty also commits the error of assuming that the alleged Marxist crudities of Rubashov are in fact Koestler’s own ideas about Marxism. In fact Merleau-Ponty seems to assume that Soviet Marxists, those in power at least, have ideas about Marxism similar to his own.

Of course Koestler’s novel has stood the test of time rather well. Merleau-Ponty’s work, not so well. So let us get started with looking at Merleau-Ponty’s work.

Let us start with the following from the Author’s Preface:
Any serious discussion of Communism must therefore pose the problem in Communist terms, that is to say, not on the grounds of principles but on the ground of human relations. It will not brandish liberal principles in order to topple communism; it will examine whether it is doing anything to resolve the problem rightly raised by communism, namely to establish among men relations that are human.9
Right away Merleau-Ponty is tipping the scale. There is no reason to automatically assume that the problem must be posed in Communist terms for to do so is to predetermine the outcome right away. This is called loading the dice and fixing the race. What is also of interest is Merleau-Ponty’s relative lack of interest in determining whether or not more “human relations”, (which he does not clearly or more than cursory defines) exist in the Soviet Union. This effort to fix the outcome before hand is intellectually indefensible.
This is the spirit in which we have reopened the question of Communist violence which Koestler brought to light in Darkness at Noon. We have not examined whether in fact Bukharin led an organized opposition nor whether the execution of the old Bolsheviks was really indispensable to the order and the national defense of the U.S.S.R. We did not undertake to re-enact the 1937 trials. Our purpose was to understand Bukharin as Koestler sought to understand Rubashov. For the trial of Bukharin brings to light the theory and practice of violence under communism since Bukharin exercises violence upon himself and brings about his own condemnation. So we tried to discover what he really thought beneath the conventions of language.10
We learn from this passage that bluntly Merleau-Ponty is not interested in the innocence or lack of innocence of the accused; nor is Merleau-Ponty interested in mere fact as it pertains to the trials. Merleau-Ponty is simply interested in what the trial tells us about high abstract theories of justified and unjustified violence. Of course this rejection of mere fact has to be done otherwise Merleau-Ponty would have to consider the fact that the statements made by Bukharin made at his show trial are complete gobblygook he was forced to utter and are no more revealing of his “real” ideas than a confession extracted under torture.

It is of interest that it is utterly clear that Bukharin’s answers, statements etc at his trial have been revealed to be concoctions stage managed to justify the trial and death sentence.11 In order to use Bukharin’s statements Merleau-Ponty must with great intellectual discipline avoid all questions of the validity Bukharin’s testimony. As it is it is valueless. At the time that Merleau-Ponty could easily have been aware that Bukharin’s testimony was likely worthless, as is testimony in all such farcical show trials, but in pursuit of his “higher” truths Merleau-Ponty choose to ignore that.

Later Merleau-Ponty says:
Thus we find ourselves in an inextricable situation. The Marxist critique of capitalism is still valid and it is clear that anti-Sovietism today resembles the brutality, hybris, vertigo, and anguish that already found expression in fascism. On the other side, the Revolution has come to a halt: it maintains and aggravates the dictatorial apparatus renouncing the revolutionary liberty of the proletariat in the Soviets and its Party and abandoning the humane control of the state. It is impossible to be an anti-Communist and it is not possible to be a Communist.12
The above quote is one of the reasons why Communists at the time disliked intensely Merleau-Ponty’s essay despite its apologetic nature. As will become clear it is also clear that at the time of writing this Merleau-Ponty longed to become a Communist and love Big Brother.

Thus later when discussing violence in Revolutions Merleau-Ponty says:
In reality the most serious threat to civilization is not to kill a man because of his ideas (this has often been done in wartime), but to do so without recognizing it or saying so, and to hide revolutionary justice behind the mask of the penal code. For, by hiding violence one grows accustomed to it and makes an institution of it. On the other hand, if one gives violence its name and if one uses it, as the revolutionaries always did, without pleasure, there remains a chance of driving it out of history.13
Aside from the absurd reference to the revolutionaries committing acts of violence without pleasure which is pure propaganda about so-called pure minded, selfless revolutionary leaders, which is nothing but suck up nonsense, it is simply not true that lawless violence is not inherently corrupting. What Merleau-Ponty is talking about is in fact lawless violence. He is right that once that, violence, becomes institutionalized it becomes dangerous, but the bottom lined is that Revolutionary violence is institutional violence also and as such rather dangerous. Especially if the practitioners of said violence are glorified as selfless, disinterested saints.

In a chapter of the book Bukharin and the Ambiguity of History,14 Merleau-Ponty examines Bukharin’s trial and testimony. Amazingly Merleau-Ponty takes it seriously! This of course involves a wilful and deliberate ignorance off the facts of the trial then ascertainable. The idea that Bukharin’s testimony can tell us much about Bukharin’s “real” ideas is absurd. It is even more absurd now that we know that Bukharin was tortured and was told that his wife and young son would be arrested and murdered if he didn’t cooperate.15

Thus on page 59 Merleau-Ponty quotes Bukharin’s “testimony” as if it is unproblematic and untainted. It is obvious that Merleau-Ponty wants very much to believe that Bukharin’s testimony is in fact unproblematic, clear and untainted by such things as torture and threats of arrest and murder of his loved ones. Neither does Merleau-Ponty want to believe that it is corrupted by being rehearsed and faked to serve a specific political purpose, i.e., justifying the “guilt” of the accused and the death sentence and thus cementing Stalin’s power. Merleau-Ponty wants to believe the all powerful, all wise, all knowing and all beneficent Big Brother.

Thus although Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that Bukharin and his fellow accused were:
…up against a persistent police force and an implacable dictatorship.16
Merleau-Ponty still quotes Bukarin as saying:
“World history is a world court of judgement.”17
Merleau-Ponty assumes that this somehow represents the “real” views of Bukharin, which again illustrates nothing except Merleau-Ponty’s desire to believe Big Brother.

The airy-fairy nonsense that Merleau-Ponty assumes that Bukharin accepts his guilt for a large constellation of highly abstract theoretical reasoning based on the assumption that “History” is the ultimate justification and excuse for human actions and that if one opposes “History” one is guilty. Merleau-Ponty wants very much to believe that “History” is the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong and that those things that help “History” towards its goal are justified and thus those historical forces and personages that work towards those ends are morally justified. To but it bluntly the ends justify the means. Thus since Communists are working towards freeing humans they are justified in doing that which furthers that goal. That this would justify all sorts of human abominations and atrocities doesn’t seem to worry Merleau-Ponty very much.

That Merleau-Ponty very much wants to believe this, and surrender his intellect to Big Brother is obvious. What is also obvious despite Merleau-Ponty’s desire is that he can’t do it. Merleau-Ponty just can’t submit to Big Brother.

Of course History as not been kind to Merleau-Ponty’s fantasies regarding Bukharin’s motivations for his testimony. Instead of Merleau-Ponty’s intellectual abstractions it boiled down to torture and threats.

Thus we have Merleau-Ponty say:
The confessions in the Moscow Trials are only the extreme instance of those letters of submission to the central Committee which in 1938 were a feature of daily life in the U.S.S.R. They are only mystifying to those who overlook the dialectic between the subjective and objective factors in Marxist politics.18
The only real mystery is Merleau-Ponty’s inability to discover the dialectic between a prisoner and his jailer, mediated by endless interrogation, starvation, sleep deprivation, beatings and sundry other variations of violent coercion.

Merleau-Ponty then closes this particular chapter by quoting Vyshinsky and Stalin.19 Now Vyshinsky was the head prosecutor of the Moscow show trial and one of the chief orchestraters of that fraud. Why should Vyshinsky’s comments about the accused be taken seriously? As for Stalin anything he as to say about this Judicial Murder is not to be taken seriously. Its of interest that Merleau-Ponty resists the idea that Moscow trials were stage managed and hence valueless as telling us much about the accused. Further it is interesting that Merleau-Ponty leaves the last word about Bukharin’s guilt to his murderers. It is obvious that Merleau-Ponty really wants to believe that Bukharin was working towards effecting a “Capitalist” restoration, and thus Stalin, i.e., Big Brother was justified but once again Merleau-Ponty can’t quite go all the way and submit.

Although Merleau-Ponty denies that he is excusing Stalin by accepting Stalin’s justifications for the terror Merleau-Ponty says thing like:
But then one can say that Stalin overruled the opposition in order to prevent German militarism from thwarting the only country in the world in which socialist forms of production had been established.20
One can say all sorts of things, but about this one can say that it is self serving propaganda, much weakened by the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939-1941.

Another passage that indicate Merleau-Ponty’s deep longing to service Big Brother is:
Although the actions of the Bolsheviks cannot at every moment reflect the immediate sentiments of the proletariat, they must on balance and in the world as a whole hasten the advancement of the proletariat and continuously raise the consciousness of the proletariat’s condition because it is the initiation of truly human coexistence.21
A clear indication that Merleau-Ponty wants to join a cult; in other words an omnipotent organization that can do no wrong and that by definition all it does is “right” even if the people it supposedly represents reject it. In the end the party is the embodiment of “history” and the fulfilling of the “true” needs of human beings. Besides only “history” can really judge if the “right” thing as been done. Once again the longing to submit to Big Brother.

Merleau-Ponty then goes into a long and rather convoluted mystification on the Proletariat and how this gives the party and Marxism its driving force.22 That the Proletariat as the embodiment of the future inevitable course of human history and development, through its mouth piece the party excuses and justifies actions taken on its behalf and only the future can justify, or damn the means used. Thus we read stomach turning bromides like this:
It is no accident, nor, I suppose, out of any romantic disposition that the first newspaper of the U.S.S.R. was given the name Pravda. [Truth] The cause of the Proletariat is so universal that it can tolerate the truth better than any other.23
I suppose one can throw up now. Pravda got by the late twenties at the earliest and especially under Stalin a deserved reputation for outrageous official lying. Once again Merleau-Ponty just cannot help himself he wants Big Brother’s bullet in his brain. The fact is lying in the name of the Proletariat by Communists was almost derigure. So much for love of truth.

It is pointless to quote Merleau-Ponty further on his desire to submit it would only be tedious and annoying however one beautiful quote that illustrates once again Merleau-Ponty’s singularly obtuse refusal to pay attention to mere empirical fact is this:
Within the U.S.S.R. violence and deception have official status while humanity is to be found in daily life. On the contrary, in democracies the principles are humane but deception and violence rule daily life.24
Thus speaks the fellow traveller and obtuse fool who doesn’t wish to learn anything about real life in the Soviet Union at the time. Obviously Merleau-Ponty read all sorts of lying and deceptive accounts by Communists and others about life in the Soviet Union and took it seriously or wanted very much to take it seriously. The dream of the omnipotent state in which people were happy, especially to those on conducted tours is what Merleau-Ponty is indulging in here. Sorry but there was plenty of violence in everyday Soviet life. The violence of intrusive unaccountable officialdom and the violence of continual surveillance.25

In this essay the terrors and mass murders of the regime from Collectivization to the Purges and the labour camps and so forth that took over ten million lives are whisked away in a fog of philosophical abstraction. To call this morally cretinist is to merely call a spade a spade. Fortunately Merleau-Ponty regained his moral footing.26

As I mentioned near the beginning Merleau-Ponty’s flirtation remained just that a flirtation with Communism. Very soon he reverted back to a vastly more critical attitude, which included very rigorous and through denunciations of Soviet foreign policies and the Gulag.27

For a brief time Merleau-Ponty wanted Big Brother’s bullet in his brain, because accepting the omnipotence of the all wise party and Big Brother would have enabled him to avoid the very difficult task of thinking for himself.

Of course “History” as not been kind to Merleau-Ponty’s essay. The view that only “History” can really judge, held by the Communists at the time, and that the ends of “history” justify the means has produced the result that Communism has been swept away into the trash heap of history. History as cast it aside as a murderous aberration in the development of the human race. It was not the embodiment of “history” and its ends but a dead end.

1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Wikipedia Here.

2. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Humanism and Terror, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969. (Originally published in 1947 in French).

3. See Footnote 1.

4. See Merleau-Ponty, pp. xiii-xlvii.

5. Judt, Tony, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1994, pp. 113-115, 123-127, Caute, David, The Fellow Travellers, Rev. Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 1988, p. 331-332.

6. Caute, pp. 329-346, Merleau-Ponty, pp. xiii-xlvii, 178-189.

7. Koestler, Arthur, Darkness at Noon, Bantam Books, New York, 1941.

8. For details about the terror see Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror, Revised Edition, Pimlico, London, 1990, pp. 117-119. Much is not talked about very much in the novel, for example torture is almost entirely absent, and the horrors of the slave labour camps and of collectivization are also largely absent.

9. Merleau-Ponty, p. xv.

10. IBID, p. xv.

11. Conquest, pp. 341-398. We know that Bukharin was tortured and his wife and son threatened with death in order to get Bukharin to “voluntarily” confess see Conquest, pp. 364-365..

12. Merleau-Ponty, p. xxi.

13. IBID, p. 34.

14. IBID, pp. 25-70.

15.See Footnote 11.

16. Merleau-Ponty, p. 62.

17. IBID.

18. IBID, p. 68.

19, IBID, pp. 69-70.

20. IBID, p. 87.

21. IBID, p. 112.

22. IBID, pp. 115-130.

23. IBID, p. 123.

24. IBID, p. 180.

25. Caute, pp. 64-139.

26. See Conquest and Applebaum, Anne, Gulag: A History, Anchor Books, New York, 2003, Khlevniuk, Oleg V., The History of the Gulag, Yale University Press, New Have CT, 2004.

27, See Footnote 5.

Pierre Cloutier

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