Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: 'Trotsky'

Paul Le Blanc's Trotsky is primarily an account of Leon Trotsky's last dozen years in exile.

Mr. Le Blanc describes Trotsky's passion in religious terms.
With a grand philosophical sweep that comprehends reality as an evolving and dynamic interplay of matter and energy, Marxism projects reality as a vibrant totality in which amazing qualitites of humanity (creative labor, community, the quest for freedom) have generated technological advances, economic surpluses and consequent inequalities that - in turn - generate struggles against oppression.
Trotsky engaged in those struggles beginning as a teenager and never wavered from the faith. Socialism was, for him, the preordained solution to all of humanity's problems, rather like the Second Coming.

So the fulfillment of Trotsky's socialist dream came in October, 1917, when at the last minute he allied himself with Lenin's Bolshevik party. A famed orator, he delivered his initial speech to his new comrades, rousing them to paroxysms of revolutionary fervor and closing with this peroration:
Let this vote of yours be your vow - with all your strength and at any sacrifice to support the Soviet that has taken on itself the glorious burden of bringing to a conclusion the victory of the revolution and of giving land, bread and peace!
Of course it was a complete lie. The peasants never got any land. Instead they were wiped out. As for bread, the Russian living standard declined from Day One of the revolution and never, ever caught up to that of the capitalist West.

And peace? Trotsky himself became the Secretary of War leading the Red Army to eventual victory, but at enormous cost. Gone was the heroic language. Instead he used threats typical of a psychopath.
I give warning that if any unit retreats without orders, the first to be shot down will be the commissar [Communist political director] of the unit, and next the [military] commander.
Perhaps because he lacked political support Trotsky pursued the war with utmost brutality, as Mr. Le Blanc describes.
In the name of defending the Revolution, a terrible violence was justified, which included the brutal repression of the peasants who were simply defending their crops from confiscation, and of the angry sailors and workers who revolted at the Kronstadt naval base outside Petrograd, traditionally a centre of pro-Bolshevik strength.
 Lenin, no fan of political violence, was taken aback.
...Trotsky particularly, as the supreme commander of the Red Army, developed a style that even Lenin - quite capable of pitiless authoritarian rhetoric - concluded was excessively 'administrative'.
"Administrative" is an odd euphemism for mass murder. But Trotsky ran with it. Subsequently his primary accusation against the Stalinist regime was that they were "bureaucratic", as if the slaughter of 40 million people could be justified if only there'd been less paperwork involved.

However unintentionally, Mr. Le Blanc depicts his subject as a womanizing psychopath. (You'll have to read between the lines to deduce the womanizing, but I'll stand by the claim.) Only when he was cast into exile, beginning in 1928, did he adopt the persona of the cuddly pig from George Orwell's Animal Farm.

While in exile Trotsky worked on three major projects. The first was his magisterial trilogy, The History of the Russian Revolution, which will be read for many generations to come. (I read the one-volume edition back when I was in college, 40 years ago.) The man was a literary genius.

The second project was an analysis of the Stalinist "degeneration" of the Soviet Union. Loathe to call the 1917 Revolution a failure, Trotsky insisted to the end that something fundamental had changed. However deformed and "bureaucratized", in the USSR workers owned the means of production, representing a major leap forward for humanity. I believe the Socialist Workers Party still subscribes to this theory, even today.

The reasons Trotsky gives for the degeneration of the USSR make no sense, and it's hard to take them seriously. Mr. Le Blanc describes them succinctly.
'When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line,' Trotsky explained. This led to the next link. 'When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order.' This simple example, he argued, 'is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It "knows" who is to get something and who has to wait.'
Unlike in backward Russia, Trotsky maintained, in Germany, England, and America there are no shortages and therefore no policeman is necessary. That's why "bureaucracy" uniquely took hold in Russia.

But this makes not even simple-minded economic sense. There is no country on earth--not even the United States--where there are no shortages. There aren't enough Mercedes Benz to go around. Even the most casual acquaintance with Adam Smith reveals how market prices clear when supply meets demand. The "bureaucracy" arises because central planners stick themselves between suppliers and consumers, destroying the market and creating huge inefficiencies and distortions. It has nothing to do with the relative poverty of Russia.

Trotsky obviously knew nothing about economics. There is no evidence that he had even heard of his great contemporary, John Maynard Keynes. He completely misunderstood the Great Depression and the causes of World War II, leading (as Mr. Le Blanc points out) to totally wrong predictions about the postwar era.

Trotsky's third project was the establishment of the Fourth International. The First International was founded by Marx & Engels; the Second International, known for social democracy, was led by the great German socialist, Karl Kautsky. Lenin established the revolutionary Third International. The Trotskyist, Fourth International arose in response to Stalin.

The project has been an abysmal failure. At no time and in no place has Trotskyism succeeded as a viable political movement. In consequence the International has splintered. Indeed, we could number the various iterations like they do software versions: International numbers, 4.1, 4.2, 4.2.1, 4.2.1a, etc. It's a farce.

So Trotsky kept the dream alive, surrounded by his groupies (disproportionately female) in his hideout in Mexico. But it takes a psychopath to know one, and Stalin couldn't sleep at night knowing that his charismatic, intelligent, ruthless rival was still alive. Live by the sword; die by the ice-pick.

I think Leon Trotsky failed at his life's ambition. He only got to spend a few years as a mass murderer--his true calling. His efforts to denigrate his rival come across as self-serving and incredible. The Fourth International is a joke. Only his History will survive as an enduring legacy.

But even that will pale. Trotsky thought that the Russian Revolution was the turning point in World history, rather like the birth of Christ. And for a few years it seemed that way. But now, a quarter Century after the demise of the USSR, the event looks more like a bad dream. Russia has been ruined by 1917: its culture, literature, population, and economy irreparably destroyed. If people recall 1917 today it will be as what not to do.

Goodbye Trotsky.

Mr. Le Blanc's book is well-written, nicely edited, and appropriately priced. The designers of the Kindle edition deserve especial praise (even though a few of the pictures are missing). If despite my advice you're still interested in Leon Trotsky, then this book is highly recommended.

Further Reading:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Demise of the Democratic Party

The demise of the Democratic Party? The claim is ambitious and I claim no certainty. Of course the Republican Party then has to change, too.

The symptoms of such a change are apparent. Political correctness--proudly inaugurated by we Trotskyists back in the early 70s--entered the American mainstream by the 1980s. But recently it has descended into parody, as illustrated by Mizzou and Yale, and also by the "rape culture" witch-hunt. Further, the environmental movement has gone off the rails, advocating ever more extreme policies that, if enacted, will impoverish billions of people. These are not positions of a thriving political movement.

Our argument starts with Arnold Kling's book describing the three axes of politics, which I reviewed and summarized here. Briefly, he claims that political discourse is organized around three poles: Progressives see the world as a tension between oppressor and oppressed; Conservatives defend civilization against barbarism, while Libertarians support freedom over coercion. In the current political alignment, Progressives are all Democrats, while Conservatives and Libertarians are uncomfortably joined in the Republican Party.

But it need not always be that way. To see why, note that Mr. Kling's label Progressive is misleading. Progressives look forward to a better world. They are building a future where there is no inequality, racism has been conquered, poverty is but a memory, and electric power comes from magical unicorns that leave no environmental footprint. Only the 1%, or perhaps the people with white male privilege, or the big corporations stand between us and a more humane world.

But there is another way to reach the same conclusion. Instead of a utopian future, what we really need to do is recover some golden age past. Do you remember those days when a guy with a high school education could get a good job at the factory? When there were uplifting shows on TV like Leave it to Beaver, or Father Knows Best. When the biggest decision in life was the choice between Ford and Chevy. Those were the days, my friend, and but for the 1%,  or the big corporations, or disruptive technology, or free trade with foreigners, we could go back to those halcyon days when we all lived happily ever after.

Believers in that last dream are commonly called conservatives (though they differ somewhat from Mr. Kling's description of Conservative), but the only real difference between them and Progressives is which direction they're looking. Progressives look forward to the future, while conservatives look back at the past. But at the end of the day they're both looking at the same thing, and regard the same people as enemies. Especially if you ditch the political correctness meme (which is happening in real time right before our eyes), then progressive and conservative close cousins under the skin.

The current exemplar of the conservative movement is Donald Trump. And lo and behold he's a long-time Democrat, a former close ally of that progressive, Hillary Clinton. So it is not written in stone that conservatives will always be allied with Libertarians. Quite the contrary, one sees a split in the Republican Party, with Trump, Cruz, and Carson on one side, and Paul, Bush, and Rubio on the other.

So I foresee a Janus-faced political party combining backward-looking conservatives on one side with forward-looking progressives on the other. There is tension between them, to be sure, but they both share the same enemies. Let's call them the Traditionalists. Traditionalists oppose free trade, are skeptical of immigration, support unions, support subsidies to important American firms such as GM and the Post Office, don't like Silicon Valley, and tend to be nativist. In addition to the above list, their ranks include Pat Buchanan (arguably the founder of the movement), Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Matt Drudge, and Rush Limbaugh. Their constituency will be Blacks, Appalachians, and working-class whites. The coin of their realm will be a deep-seated grievance against the 1%, globalization, disruptive technology, and the New Normal.

Opposing the Traditionalists will be a Party I'll dub the Liberals, so named because they'll count among their members classical liberals such as Arnold Kling and me. But not just us. Other members will include Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Bill McKibben, Bryan Caplan, and John Kerry. The Liberals will believe in free trade and open borders, along with the rule of law. They'll welcome new technology. Unlike the Traditionalists, they'll see the modern era as the best of times. Maybe it will get better in the future, but only if we stay the course.

Liberals will also be a coalition. While all of us will subscribe to capitalism and globalization, the Party will contain both Keynesians and Hayekians. Against the Traditionalists those differences are modest. Likewise, people who worry about global problems (e.g., Bill McKibben) will sign up as Liberals. The Liberals' constituency will include Silicon Valley, the professional class, new immigrants (e.g., most Hispanics and Asians), young people, and people who enjoy travel and interesting restaurants.

So lets consider specifically the fate of two subgroups: academics and Trotskyists.

Academics will split, though not evenly. The top of the profession--e.g., Larry Summers and Paul Krugman--will be Liberals. That's because they're winners in the winner-take-all competition, and they benefit directly from global marketplace for their ideas. I expect the famous people at the Ivies to be Liberals pretty much regardless of their current political affiliations. The internecine fight within the Liberal Party will be intense, but again, compared to the Traditionalists all differences will pale.

Most Academics--e.g., my colleagues at the local state college--will become Traditionalists. Their top priorities will be to preserve funding, tenure, and the prestige that comes from the title professor. All of these are at risk in the New Normal, threatened by both technology and globalization. 

Those faculty who staffed the barricades at Mizzou are part of the Traditionalist brigade, though they don't realize it yet. Everybody at the barricades--the faculty, the Black students, the white students--have a vested interest in the survival of the university as an institution. They will need allies in its defense. Their natural allies are other people in the same predicament, i.e., people whose jobs are being automated or globalized, and whose salaries are declining. To win those allies my faculty colleagues are going to have to abandon political correctness. I think you will see that happen very quickly now.

My Trotskyist friends are in worse shape. Note that socialism will not be on the agenda for either Party. Some Trotskyist talking points will still have traction, e.g., the higher minimum wage, a growth of the union movement, and a dig at the 1%. But the blanket condemnation of individual property and freedom will be a non-starter. Further, most of the Trotskyist movement has aligned itself with radical environmentalism, which will put them at odds with most Traditionalists.

I think Trotskyism will fade into irrelevance. (Actually, I've thought that for a long time.)

A possible exception is the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The masthead of the The Militant proclaims it's "published in interests of working people." Working people have to have jobs, and so the SWP has wisely distanced itself from the job-killing Greenies. Likewise, they're taking more "conservative" stands regarding Jihadism, Israel, and national defense. They are gradually turning themselves into a Traditionalist grouping. They might survive as such (though they won't be recognizably Trotskyist anymore).

Traditionalist Parties have long existed in Europe, including the National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, and Alternativ fuer Deutschland in Germany. Perhaps Syriza could now be put under that umbrella. In all cases they are becoming simultaneously less socialist and less fascist, and thereby more palatable to a mainstream audience.

So Donald Trump, rather than being an outlier, is a foretaste of politics in the New Normal.

Further Reading:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Trotsky's Common Sense Diet

The conceit is that Americans have unhealthy diets. I don't think that's is true--we eat better food than anybody ever has in the history of humanity. We can eat poorly if we so choose, but for the most part the modern American diet is perfectly fine. The main problem is we eat too much.

The typical adult male needs about 2000 Calories per day, split between carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. While the precise proportion of those nutrients is probably not that important, it is essential that you get a sufficient quantity of each. For that reason I am not a fan of the extremist low-fat or low-carb diets. Common sense should rule.

Carbs (aka, sugars) are something of a special case. Unlike fats and proteins, these need to be metabolized right away. The body cannot easily store carbs for future use. Eating too many carbs at one time pegs out the system. And especially as one gets older this can lead to diabetes (something I have recently become familiar with).

So while carbs are a necessary nutrient, we should consume them in complex, slowly-digestible forms. Refined sugars should be avoided, and high-fructose corn syrup should not be eaten at all. If possible, one should eat whole grains--healthier mainly because it takes the body longer to digest them.

In addition to the nutrients, there are selected chemicals that the body needs in order to function properly. Your body can't make those so they have to come in your food. They include things like retinol, niacinamide, pyridoxine, cyanocobalamin, and ascorbic acid. Collectively they are known as vitamins, and the common names for the ones I've listed are A, B3, B6, B12, and C. These are all small molecules that can be readily manufactured in a chemistry lab. You can consume them in a pill.
The structure of some vitamins
       (taken from

Here are some common myths about the American diet:
  • People who worry a lot about their diet are healthier.
Many religions, e.g., Judaism, have dietary laws. I do not believe these confer any health benefits. Indeed, my anecdotal impression is that orthodox Jews are disproportionately obese and unhealthy. Whether that's because of kosher or despite kosher I don't know, but obviously kosher isn't helping any.

Even worse off are the vegans. The vegan students I've encountered have pasty, unhealthy complexions, seem to be frequently sick, and look terrible. This is not a good diet, certainly lacking in fats and proteins, and probably missing some vitamins as well.

Likewise, the Atkins diet is low-carb extremist. I tried it at one point and found it completely unworkable. Reducing carbs is fine, but an ideological crusade to eliminate them is nuts.
  •  Some essential ingredient is missing from your diet.
Just take the magic pill--so the story goes--and you'll be much healthier. That's what they tell you in the nutrition shops or on late-night TV. Not true. As long as you get your vitamins you're fine. There is no magic ingredient missing from the food you eat.

As I've already said, our biggest problem is that we eat too much. It is simply not true that despite all that food we're all on the verge of malnutrition because we lack some essential nutraceutical. It's nonsense. I never visit those "nutrition" shops.
  • Fast food is unhealthy food.
A Big Mac has about 550 Calories. If you ate three of them a day you'd get all the carbs, fats, and proteins you need, along with 1650 Cal. If the remaining Calories were consumed as fresh fruits and vegetables you'd have a perfectly balanced diet. Nobody on the Big Mac diet will die of malnutrition.

Of course that diet is boring. So people augment it with fries, a soft drink, and an apple pie. Then you've got too many Calories and way too many carbs. But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with fast food. All it is is good food served quickly.

  • Pesticides and food additives are bad for you.
Pesticides are clearly non-toxic to humans. Were it otherwise we'd have long since been killed off--they've been used ubiquitously for decades if not centuries. To the contrary, pesticides make food better by keeping insects out of it. I live right next to an apple orchard, and if the farmer didn't use pesticides the apples wouldn't be near as good.

I used to buy bread that didn't contain preservatives. Of course it goes stale and moldy within a few days. I always ended up throwing half the loaf away. There is no measurable damage to human health from preservatives. Indeed, there is enormous cost savings because much less food has to be discarded.

Likewise, food additives add taste and texture to food. The alternative is a lot more sugar or a lot more fat. Food shouldn't just be healthy, but also tasty and attractive. Food additives allow that to happen cheaply and with no significant ill effects.
  • "Health food" is healthy.
My daughter buys something called "almond milk" in lieu of the real thing--she thinks it's healthier. But it's just sugar water with a little almond extract and a few vitamins mixed in. It's overpriced, carb-loaded crap. Much better to buy real milk, which comes not only with vitamins and proteins, but necessary fatty acids. (My wife is lactose-intolerant, so that is not an option for her.)

Likewise, I see no advantage to so-called "organic" food. It confers no health benefits that I can see. But the Madison Avenue guys have y'all bamboozled into buying the stuff at inflated prices. I never touch it.

So that's Trotsky's common sense diet. Eat recognizable foods. Don't worry about additives or pesticides. Avoid excess carbohydrates. Control your calorie intake. As Aristotle said, all things in moderation. Enjoy your food. Don't let the Greenies, the ad men, the fanatics, or the scolds get to you.

Bon Appetit!