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Confessions of an ex commie

By James A. Donald

jamesd@echeque.com


When I was about 13, 14, 15, I felt very oppressed, and I read a lot of stuff about participatory democracy. I became very keen on participatory democracy. I realized that there would be a problem deciding who was to participate on what, but I figured that such trivial details could be taken care of after the revolution, and I joined a radical leftist group at the age of 15. They were Spartacists. Spartacists are a kind of Trotskyite, and Trotkyites are a kind of communist and there are innumerable obscure little trot factions. The communists have a saying. “Two trots, three factions.”

This particular faction of the trots was very keen on participatory democracy at that time, as were the left, and progressive forces generally at that time.

I soon saw that the sparts' modus operandi was entryism. They would join much larger organizations, organizations whose goals, motivations, and members they despised, and then take over that organization and use its funds, assets, and membership list for their own purposes, rather than for the original purposes of the organization.

It rapidly became obvious to me that if a large organization was genuinely practicing participatory democracy it could easily be taken over by a small well organized minority, and the only participatory organizations that could resist the sparts were those that were already dominated by a small, well entrenched, minority. Usually a hostile, suspicious and somewhat paranoid minority, a minority that tended to go on witch hunts for sparts from time to time, and check under the bed for sparts before going to sleep at night.

I became disillusioned with the sparts, and disillusioned by participatory democracy – and none too keen on representative democracy either. But I still believed that it could be made to work, that one could run society and the economy and socialism in truly democratic fashion, but I realized that it might not be quite as easy, or quite as democratic, as I had hoped.

At the age of seventeen I joined both the anarcho socialists and the Maoists – mostly because these were the two groups most hated by the trots.

(Some years later I learnt that the main point of disagreement between Stalin and Trotsky was that Trotsky felt that Stalin was reluctant to murder enough people, and reluctant to stamp out freedom with the sort of savage vigor that Trotsky delighted in. This did not surprise me in the slightest.)

Mostly I was active with the Maoists. The leaders of the Maoists were full of faith, zeal, and certainty. Each one's strength was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure.

The anarcho socialist leader suffered from uncertainty, doubt, complexity, and participatory democracy. I will tell you more of the anarcho socialists later, but first, the Maoists:

In my second year at university, the leadership group of the Maoists was taken by the Chinese government on a tour of China.

Now in those days “foreign friends” who toured China usually reported that they had a really great time and that China was full collectives full of happy, free and prosperous workers all equal, all working for pure love of the common good, and all filled with holy zeal for the glorious word of Chairman Mao.

Somehow my friends missed out on the Potemkin village tour and got the reality tour instead. Or perhaps it is merely that the foreign friends who write those glowing reports are those who are best at closing their eyes.

When they returned they were changed men. When someone asked them about their trip they would be vague and quiet, and when they finally got around to answering they would change the subject and would not look you in the eye.

They would still tell you that China was a glorious workers paradise, but they no longer appeared to be listening to their own words, as if perhaps they could not bear to hear the words that they recited.

Most of them continued to work full time for the revolution, but they were no longer strong and full of faith, but weak, guilty, furtive, and a little ashamed.

Gradually, most of the members of the Maoist group dropped out, as did I.

So now I engaged in most of my political activism with the chronically disorganized anarcho socialists. The leader of the anarcho socialists genuinely believed in participatory democracy, and as result nothing got done.

We would sometimes discuss how anarcho socialism would work, and I noticed that most of us had not the faintest idea, and those that did have an idea had ideas that sounded disturbingly like the ideas that my Maoist friends had before their trip to China.

My anarchist group had no literature on Catalonia. The leader, when discussing anarcho socialism, never mentioned Catalonia. Sometimes, when interacting with other anarcho socialist groups, I would see literature on the glorious anarcho socialist society created in Catalonia for a short time. Our leader tended to treat such literature as if was either invisible or coated with radioactive waste. Not that he ever said anything that suggested that Catalonia had ever fallen short of being the perfect anarchist utopia and simultaneously the perfect socialist utopia, but he appeared somewhat uncomfortable with the word “Catalonia”. Indeed he appeared incapable of speaking that word.

Reading the Catalonia literature, I noticed something that disturbed me a little. The consolidation into larger economic units seemed curiously uniform and swift. If it was voluntary, if people themselves decided where they would work and what work they would do, you would expect the small workshops to gradually merge one by one, each merger separately negotiated.

An even more disturbing feature was the total silence from the gloriously liberated workers of Catalonia, a silence strongly reminiscent of that which I had noticed earlier from the gloriously liberated workers of Mao's China. The glowing reports of how well the Anarchist communes worked and how free they were all came from foreigners, who had been given something that disturbingly resembled the official tours given to foreign friends in Mao's China, or they came from people who sounded suspiciously like rulers. How come an anarchist society was capable of giving people something that curiously resembles an official tour? How come free people were so utterly silent?

So I stopped reading stuff about Catalonia. In one part of my mind I believed that Catalonia showed that freedom and socialism went together like ham and eggs. In another part of my mind I suspected that if I read too much about Catalonia I would suffer the same sad transformation as my Maoist friends had suffered.

But this mental conflict disturbed me, and I started thinking about property rights.

Imagine a society where you were given everything you needed free of charge, and gold was worthless or of little use. Imagine a society where you worked for the common good without compensation for specific work.

Is this not the same thing as a society where someone else decides what you need, and someone else decides what you do?

And is such a society not the same thing as a slave state?

Obviously, freedom is the choice to do what you want to do, not doing what the group thinks is good for the group. Selfishness may not be a virtue, but if selfishness is forbidden, then you are not free. And in order be free to do what you want to do you need space to do it in, and things to do it with. Property is simply those things that one is free to use or misuse as one pleases, wisely or unwisely, without asking permission. Thus freedom and property rights are inseparable.

And not only does my property make me more free, but other people's property also makes me more free, provided it is not all owned by a single entity. Freedom of the press is merely the property right of the guy who owns the press to print what he pleases, and my property right to buy what he prints, or not, as I please.

Any system where I am free to see or read what I please, and the publisher is free to publish what he pleases, is a system where someone like Stephen Spielberg will probably make a billion dollars. If I cannot choose who I pay or not pay, then the publisher has no reason to publish what I am interested in, or he else is not free to publish what he wishes. Any system where someone like Stephen Spielberg is free to make a billion dollars will necessarily be very similar to capitalism.

Imagine a society where all the printing presses and bulletin board systems were owned by the government and run by a single bureaucracy charged with ensuring that all views were given “fair” hearing, and all news was “fair” and “properly balanced”. Clearly this would be most unfree, and it is also likely that in practice certain views would not given any hearing, and that certain true facts would be deemed to be inherently misleading and unbalanced.

And even if it was all perfectly fair and balanced, it would still deny me the opportunity to be unfair and unbalanced.

So I gradually came to realize that the failures of socialism were not accidents, but rather an inherent consequence of socialism. Without private property there is no room for any freedom whatsoever.

So I gradually dropped out from the anarcho socialists, but I continued to support the struggles of the oppressed peoples of the world against the evils of US imperialism.

It seemed to me then that there was a choice between liberty and equal economic outcomes, and that those that were poor and oppressed were right to prefer equal economic outcomes to liberty and an empty belly.

It was obvious to me that when multinational corporations sought to spread capitalism around the world, it was not because they wished the workers have more choices on how to make a living.

I had come to realize that you could not have equal economic outcomes and liberty both, but it is plain that you can have both slavery and gross inequality, and plain that in much of the world there was plenty of that.

Like all good progressive folk of that time (1976) I supported the heroic struggle of the Cambodian people under the leadership of Pol Pot against the evils of US imperialism.

But those Cambodian refugees just kept on coming, and their tales of horror continued. Eventually I woke up.

I saw the truth.

There is no conflict between liberty and equality: If you hope to obtain equality by redistribution of wealth, you will need masters to allocate the goodies, to avoid a free for all, and some will be masters, and the rest subjects. The more redistribution, the more inequality you have in favor of those managing the redistribution, and against those looked after by their betters. For example when the government intervenes to secure “Employee rights” you wind up with an empowered human resources department, not empowered employees.

Inequality cannot be remedied by concentrated and centralized power, the greater such power, the greater the injustice. And power can only be dispersed if many particular people have complete authority over many particular separate things, in other words, if everything is privately owned.

Liberty is property rights. Liberty is diminished in direct proportion as property rights are violated.

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