Sunday, March 23, 2014

“Freedom” Under a Tyranny

Isaiah Berlin

One of the most important attributes of tyranny and living under a tyranny is that intelligent people are forced to “trim their sails” in order to survive. Thus they are forced to compromise their intellect in order to stay both safe and alive. The corollary  that goes with that is that the holders of power can dictate what is “reasonable” and “rational” and their holding of power over people enables them to enforce their views against the will and intellect of others.

Thus patently absurd opinions that have little to no intellectual basis can be enforced on terrorized and fearful people who lack power. Their desire to be safe and secure can be used in order to enforce the opinions of power holders. It doesn’t matter how demented, idiotic or insane those views are what matters is the power held over others by the power holder. He / she decides what is “rational” and “reasonable” and subjects to merciless abuse, including death, those who disagree.

A perfect example of this is in Orwell’s 1984 when towards the end O’Brien is pontificating about how reality is all in your head and other solipsistic nonsense. His opinions have zero intellectual value it is only the fact that he holds absolute power over another human being that makes him terrifying and able to inflict his infantile idiocies on helpless victims. The fact his victims are helpless doesn’t make O’Brien’s stupidities any less stupid.1

The treason of intellectuals under a tyranny is simply a given of power versus lack of power and the quite human desire not to suffer. But sometimes it reaches quite absurd intellectually corrupting lengths. For it must also be faced that although the intellectual surrender to power might be initially be brought on by force it can in the end engender genuine intellectual corruption. Humans are often inclined to worship success and the simple fact X has power, whereas Y does not easily leads to the thought that maybe X is right. This is true regardless of the idiocy and absurdity of X's views. Further the process of coercion can in the end slowly seep into the mind of those coerced so that they begin to accept X’s point of view. Given X’s power over society and the steady application of coercion, slowly but surely X’s point of view will seep into many minds.

The simple act of acting in conformity, to stay alive / safe, while inwardly not conforming can gradually give way and by acting in conformity gradually inward conformity develops. An outstanding example of this is the English Reformation. There is abundant evidence that contrary to much previous thought the English Reformation was a top down process, enforced by massive coercion and violence. In fact the great majority of the English people neither wanted it and in fact passively resisted it. In truth the whole process of the English Reformation seemed to produce two generations of people, largely indifferent to religious life. Which is quite a contrast to late Medieval religion in England. However gradually the continued coercion of the state upon society created widespread belief and in fact enthusiasm for Protestantism but the process took some time. Gradually outward conformity was mirrored by inward conformity. The rigorous imposition of state coercion eventually reached right into people's souls and created change there.2

If the 16th century English state which was far from a Totalitarian state could via violence and other forms of coercion basically mold men’s souls, a modern Totalitarian state could without a doubt do “better” just like the state in 1984. Further the ability of the Totalitarian state to get people to mouth and even believe idiocies would be much, much greater. Thus we get Stalin’s Russia.

So we get the following example of intellectual corruption / stupidity from an intellectual in Stalin’s Russia. To set the stage. The essayist / political scientist and philosopher Isaiah Berlin was visiting Russia in 1945 and while attending a reception in Moscow met a Mrs., who had been a secretary to Lenin. Mrs.  told him the following stupidities:

We are a scientifically governed society, and if there is no room for free thinking in physics – a man who questions the laws of motion is obviously ignorant or mad – why should we, Marxists, who have discovered the laws of history and society, permit free thinking in the social sphere? Freedom to be wrong is not freedom; you seem to think that we lack freedom of political discussion; I simply do not understand what you mean. Truth liberates: we are freer than you in the West.3
It would be entirely correct to label the above has intellectual idiocy of a very high order and thus dismiss it. However when we deconstruct it you can see both the coercive effects of power on the mind and the working of doublethink. Also in this comment can be seen clearly the operations of two of the slogans from Orwell’s party in 1984. Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.

As in 1984 and under the Tudors power and coercion will impose “truth” and that “truth” will go uncontested because of the coercive power of the state to impose idiocies.

Let us go through the statement and analyze it from the start. The statement that Russia in 1945 was a “scientifically” governed society is of course risible. It was in fact a dictatorship, whose “planning” was chaotic, wasteful and brutal. The “science” was minimal. What counted were the whims of the dictator, Stalin, and his helpers. Rationality took a back seat. But then it was part of the “correct” thinking imposed by the coercive state that Russia in 1945 was “scientifically” governed and thus like under the Tudors the “correct” conformist belief would be uttered even if it conflicted with reality because other opinions were forbidden public expression.

The comparison with physics is sadly unfortunate in that Mrs. doesn’t have the foggiest notion that there has been considerable room for debate and discussion in Physics. Further the idea that the “laws of history and society” are as firmly based has, say Newtonian physics, and as beyond question is mere dogma that was belied by history after 1945. Further maverick ideas in physics are not punished by coercion, terror and thought control, but are studied, tested and debated.

As for the man who questions the laws of motion being ignorant or mad. Well – he is generally not imprisoned, tortured made to confess his error. Usually he is ignored. The point being he can express his fantasy generally without fear of punishment. It is interesting to point out that in the past those who questioned the “obvious” laws of motion etc., were in fact punished by the holders of “truth” with prison, coercion and even painful death. Thus the case of, for example Galileo. Were they, the holders of power at the time, “right” after all? (snark)

Mrs. then says that since Marxists have discovered the “truth” about the “laws of history and society”, they do not have to allow freedom in the “social sphere”. Obviously Mrs. doesn’t have a clue about what freedom means. It means allowing possible and yes real error. I also note the dogmatic insistence that they have the “truth”. Just how does Mrs. know that she and others like her have the “truth”?. Others disagree. And just how are we going to test the “truth” of something if we via coercion repress debate? Coercion inhibits truth finding by killing debate. All repression proves is that you have more power not that you are right. Thus illustrating the implicit motto Ignorance is Strength. For it is Mrs.’ ignorance and dogmatism that is on display here.

Mrs. then lets the cat out of the bag when she says: “Freedom to be wrong is not freedom”. This of course goes back to Plato and to certain Enlightenment thinkers who thought that “Freedom” consisted of making the “right” choice and not being the ability to make choices. Aside from the assumption that there always exists a “right” choice, an assumption in itself, this manages to turn freedom into tyranny. If freedom consists of making “right” choices than an absolute totalitarian tyranny that enforces “right” choices is “true” “freedom”.

And of course the corollary to that is that the actual freedom to make choices isn’t real freedom at all. In other words like in 1984 Freedom is Slavery. And the implicit reverse is true i.e., Slavery is Freedom. It is not in the least surprising that Mrs. living in a Totalitarian, one party dictatorship ruled by a Dictator like Stalin would basically make an argument that more or less implies that tyranny, so long as it forces people to make the “right” choice is in fact “freedom”.  Mrs’ argument is basically an apologia for Stalin and brutal tyranny.

The rest of the statement is further embarrassing to Mrs. Of course it is pretty obvious that in Russia they did indeed in 1945 lack freedom of political discussion and in fact from Mrs.’ previous comments it is obvious she has no particular problems with that. After all “truth” cannot tolerate “error” (snark).
Mrs’ further comment that she doesn’t understand what Mr. Berlin means is I believe sincere. After all to a true believer who thinks “truth” is one thing and has clear and obvious has day cannot understand the need to debate the point(s) at all. And Mrs. is a true believer who will not tolerate, what to her is obvious “error”. Of course it never occurs to Mrs., and others of her kind that other people view her beliefs as “wrong” and full of “error”. To the true believer any disagreement is perversity and bad faith and thus cannot be tolerated at all.

Mrs.’ cry of incomprehension of Mr. Berlin’s position is believable, for she simply does not understand in the slightest that freedom is the ability to make choices not always making the “right” choice. Further like all dogmatic thinkers she is utterly unable to understand that others might think different from her. All of which indicates both fanatical dogmatism and deep ignorance.

During Stalin’s last years there was the absurd spectacle and farce of Lysenkoism. When coercion and repression was used to impose a ridiculous ideological vision on biology that bluntly contradicted truth and yes natural laws. All this the result of Stalin’s diktat and whim. So much for Russia under Stalin being “scientific”. So much for respect for truth. For regardless of Mrs.’ statements “truth” in the Soviet Union was determined by one man’s whims and her statements are little more than a justification for that.4

And of course the ritualistic incantation by her that her thinking is “Scientific” shows no understanding in the least that science thrives on freedom and debate. The comparison of Marxist laws of history with physics merely indicates Mrs.’ dogmatism and lack of understanding. And of course Mrs.’ belief that “right” thought equals ”freedom” is Totalitarian.

So basically Mrs. was an apologist for Stalin but the question then arises just how sincere was she in her statement to Mr. Berlin? It is clear that her statement justifying, what can only be called tyranny is intellectually contemptible and moronic. So was it just to help keep the Secret Police from the door?

After all Mrs. lived in a Police State, she had worked for Lenin and had lived through the Great Terror of the 1930s; Mrs. would have known very well that people were arrested, tortured and murdered for their opinions. The terror had lessened but informers and watch dogs where everywhere.  Being arrested could come at any time. Russians in contact with foreigners would be especially watched for deviation and “anti-Soviet” acts. So that mouthing the platitudes and nonsense required and “encouraged” by the regime would help keep those wolfs away. And certainly mouthing them to foreigners when the Police are certainly listening would be required for self-preservation.

Thus one may doubt the sincerity of Mrs.’ statement to Mr. Berlin and certainly its intellectual poverty bespeaks of a rote response to protect oneself. And remember the aim of the Police may also take those near and dear to you. So watch what you say.

One cannot just leave it at that. Yes the idea that it is a rote response spoken out of fear and totally lacking in sincerity is certainly appealing yet it is likely not the full story. It ignores the corrupting influence of enforced conformity. It ignores the effects of enforced doublethink and the effects of previous ideas that may affect thinking.

Thus  Mrs. was probably partially sincere. After all the notion that abiding in “truth” was real “freedom” is and was a common notion. Mrs. had absorbed by her years of being a Marxist-Leninist the notion of it being the absolute “truth” and all disagreement with it being perverse. Certainly the dogmatic / fanatical cast of it would have lent itself quite easily to the notion that obeying it was “freedom”. For Mrs. was almost certainly a true believer with a religious cast of mind.

Further years and years of living in constant fear and under coercive pressure of various kinds would have likely warped her thinking. Thus Mrs. would engage in doublethink, turning freedom into slavery and slavery into freedom.  Also convincing herself that she was not profoundly ignorant when she was in fact ignorant about Science etc. Gradually all this enforced conformity for the purpose of staying safe and out of trouble would have affected her mind and beliefs. Probably very few people could avoid such intellectual corruption of the mind. In the end it is possible she would be entirely “sincere” in what she uttered to Mr. Berlin. The Thought Police and enforced conformity would have eroded the defences of her mind and she would come to love Big Brother.

Like in Tudor England repeated actions, at first done under compulsion, would gradually get intellectual assent out of habit. Tell yourself a lie often enough and you may actually begin to sincerely believe it.

I suspect that Mrs.’ assent was never total but that still Stalin was able to get into her mind and corrupt her intellectually so that she really honestly believed much of what she told Mr. Berlin.

In the end Big Brother’s bullet did enter her mind. Such is the terrifying fact that force can indeed change men’s souls.

Map of the Gulag

1. See Orwell, George, 1984, Signet Classic, New York, 1949.

2. See Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Alters, Second Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2005, pp. 377-593, and The Voices of Morebath, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2001. And Whiting, Robert, The Blind Devotion of the People, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, pp. 262-268.

3. Mrs., quoted by Isaiah Berlin and quoted in Caute, David, Isaac and Isaiah, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2013, p. 118, from Berlin, Isaiah, Personal Impressions, Pimlico, London, 1980, pp. 169-170. Caute writes that this women was a Mrs. Afinogenova. Checking Isaiah’s book Personal Impressions would seem to indicate that this person was different from Mrs. Afinogenova although she too was married. See Personal Impressions pp. 167-169. I have thus indicated the person whose name Isaiah does not give by the designation Mrs.

4. For Lysenkoism see Gardner, Martin, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Second Edition, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1957, pp. 140-151. For Stalin and the Great Terror see Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror, Revised Edition, Pimlico, London, 1990, Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, Anchor Books, New York, 2003, Khlevniuk, Oleg V., The History of the Gulag, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2004, Litvin, Alter, & Keep, John, Stalinism, Routledge, London, 2005.
Pierre Cloutier

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