Means and Ends

I have not had a lot of blogging time lately, as a check of the archives will reveal. Since taking the King’s coin to do translation research, I’ve been waist-deep in the ugly, practical, code-in-the-compiler end of algorithmic information theory. What I had taken to be a very clean and simple application of a very elementary mathematical proposition, on which I hung some bells and whistles to make it look impressive, has some actual programming consequences which are quite challenging.

It’ll all work. My math is sound and my preliminary returns are excellent. This is, after all, a reseach project. Doing this is how we find out what we didn’t think of when we started.

But, in conjunction with my class load, this means I have not been able to blog much, or even follow the news closely. I apologise for this to all my comrades in blogging here at AFOE. However, my long commute has given me a good deal of time to read. I am currently reading a fascinating but long out of print book which I have tried for quite a long time to find and recently acquired through Ebay: The New Class by Milovan Djilas.

Djilas wrote this book – a political condemnation of communism – in 1957, while he was in prison in Yugoslavia. SInce his death, Djilas has become a minor saint of the New Criterion right, although I doubt he would have approved. He was an early refusenik and dissident, one of the first to take his dissidence directly to the western media. At the very beginning of the book where he expresses his disenchantment with “really existing socialism” he says that as he “became increasingly estranged from the reality of contemporary Communism, I came closer to the idea of democratic socialism.”

At any rate, Djilas saw a good deal more clearly what was wrong with the states he helped found than western anti-communists. His analysis, although he does not seem to see it this way, is quite Marxist in nature. As the title suggests, what communist revolutions established was a new class, possessed of a different kind of social relationship to the means of production. This new class established a hegemony over the ideology of the state and acted to entrench its power. This was the grand failure of the revolution – the establishment of a new ruling class with no more – and often less – scruples than ruling class it replaced.

Djilas acknowledges that the better world the revolutionaries preached was something they really believed in and points to something that is rejected, ignored, or simply forgotten in the west: The awful reality of communism did not happen because the communists didn’t try to build a better world, it came about because they were incapable of building it. But they were capable of industrialising the agrarian states they controlled, and they took to that with great gusto and utter realism; justifying the awful means they used by claiming, and even believing, that this was a necessary step to their ideal ends.

Djilas is moderately famous for prophecising the end of communism from within, because by forswearing Stalinist methods, the regime would cast doubt on the goals of its programme. It is now apparent that by 1989, very few people at any level in communist Europe actually believed in the system they lived in. Except in Romania, even the leaders surrendered without a fight.

His book is, forgivably given the conditions under which it was written, full of contradictions. Djilas says that history may well forgive the communists much of what they did, given the circumstances forced upon them, while at the same time condemning communist methods as the negation of its goals. There are also a number of genuinely contestable generalisations, although Djilas in his introduction points out that he is aware of the limitations of his generalisations.

But there is one particular section in particular I wish to highlight:

Throughout history, there have been no ideal ends which were attained with non-ideal, inhumane means, just as there has been no free society which was built by slaves. Nothing so well reveals the reality and greatness of ends as the methods used to attain them.

If the end must be used to condone the means, then there is something in the end itself, in its reality, which is not worthy. That which really blesses the end, which justifies the efforts and sacrifices for it, is the means: their constant perfection, humaneness, increasing freedom. […]

No regime in history which was democratic – or relatively democratic while it lasted – was predominantely established on the aspiration for ideal ends, but rather on the small, everyday means in sight. Along with this, each such regime achieved, more or less spontaneously, great ends. On the other hand, every despotism tried to justify itself by its ideal aims. Not a single one achieved great ends.

Absolute brutality, or the use of any means, is in accord with the grandiosity, even the unreality of Communist aims.

By revolutionary means, contemporary Communism has succeded in demolishing one form of society and despotically setting up another. At first it was guided by the most beautiful, primordial human ideas of equality and brotherhood; only later did it conceal behind these ideas the establishment of its domination by other means. […]

Thus, by justifying the means because of the end, the end itself becomes increasingly more distant and unrealistic, while the frightful reality of the means becomes increasingly obvious and intolerable.

There are things to debate in this statement. Some of the wealthiest and most liberal societies in the world were built at least in part by slaves, and all of them were built by deeply coercive means. But, it is true that no nation that I would rank among the world’s best was built on an ideal, although some of them claim to have been.

What brings this passage to mind is the latest from Thomas “Airmiles” Friedman.

After decades of Saddam’s brutal rule, civil society there was just beginning to come back, and the first threads of trust between the different communities were just beginning to be tied. The whole purpose of the U.S. occupation was to build a constitutional framework in which this center could be developed.

This was always a long shot. But, I believe, after 9/11, trying to build a decent state in the heart of a drifting Arab-Muslim world — a world that is manufacturing millions of frustrated, unemployed youths — was worth trying. But it takes resources and legitimacy, and the Bush team has provided too little of both. […]

I know the right thing to do now is to stay the course, defeat the bad guys, disarm the militias and try to build a political framework that will hold the now wavering Shiite majority on our side — because if we lose them, the game is over. […]

Without more allies, without more global legitimacy — and without an Iraqi center ready to stand up against their Khmer Rouge now posing as their Viet Cong — we cannot win in Iraq. We will be building a house with bricks and no cement. In that case, we will have to move to Plan B. Too bad we never really had Plan A.

Friedman’s retroactive justification for the war – the reasoning in use now that there are no weapons of mass destruction or ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda – is the ideal of building a “decent state in the heart of a drifting Arab-Muslim world.” But the means – making a mess of the few mechanisms that can actually provide some legitimacy to a war against a state that has not broken the peace, lying profusely, suppressing dissent at home and from other nations, resorting to increasingly oppressive mechanisms of social control in occupation – damn the ends just as Stalin damned the ideal aims of revolutionary communism. This effort does not even have the one mitigating justification Djilas grants the communists: America has not been forced into this.

And, as the means grow worse, the ends grow more and more remote. When are they projecting holding elections in Iraq now? When does the US plan to take its troops off the street? Does anyone believe in the dates that are being offered? I’m sure that, like Friedman, many idealistic communists in the years after the revolution must have told themselves the same thing: I know the right thing to do is stay the course, build industry, no matter what the cost, but…

Is it any surprise if people suspect that the ends – “a decent state in the heart of a drifting Arab-Muslim world” – will turn out the same way that Lenin’s ends did?

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About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

4 thoughts on “Means and Ends

  1. I believe the argument offered by the more honest defenders of the invasion is rather that “a decent state in the heart of a drifting Arab-Muslim world” is an indispensable MEANS for gaining greater control over the region, so as to achieve the end of reigning in the production of terrorists and terrorism. But you still have a point.

    Addressing the present situation, it may well be that very ugly means are required to prevail in Iraq and to avoid a civil war. Still, in my opinion the US should emphasise much more the “carrot”, make commitments to really substantial financial development aid to an Iraq controlled by Iraqis rather than Americans. Even if this may require compromising on their vision of complete control over an Iraqi puppet state in the future.

  2. Georg – while I remain against the war, I certainly agree that now that it is done, the best possible course of action if one really wants the stated ends is to clean up the means. That certainly involves substantially abandonning the US monopoly on Iraq’s political decisions.

    Djilas’ book specifically condemns the communists for fighting to keep a monopoly on power. I think the same logic applies here – both to the US monopoly on power in Iraq and to the US monopoly on decisions about regime change globally.

  3. OT, but no one has to look for out-of-print books any more. Bookfinder.com can find anything in the major European languages on sale anywhere.

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