Three Axes and Communism

A reader asks,

how does conservative opposition to Communism (in the second half of the 20th century) fit on the civilization-barbarianism axis? I’m not sure that the Soviet Union or communist China are really thought of as “barbarians”. It seems weird that the main competitor in a space race can be a “barbarian”.

Put yourself in the mindset of 1950. In America, religion is still sacred, so to speak. Recall that Churchill described Lenin as a bacillus sent on a train from Germany into Russia. There was a fear that Communism was like a spreading infection, with many in the west having succumbed to the disease. There was some awareness of Stalin’s butchery of his own people (although this awareness increased considerably a few years later). There was much awareness that Communist “show trials” had mocked the rule of law.

Communists were not primitive in the sense that many environmentalists today are primitivists at heart. The were not medieval like Islamists. But they were against religion, family, and freedom, and they appeared to be willing to use any means, including lies and violence, to spread their ideology. That was sufficient for conservatives to view Communism as barbaric. In fact, conservatives’ characterization of Communists as barbaric greatly disturbed Americans on the left, who saw anti-Communism as extreme and irrational.

Among libertarians, Rand was very anti-Communist, but Rothbard was inclined to blame America for the Cold War. Thus, there was no consensus libertarian position on Communism.

Progressives, like Galbraith and Samuelson, admired the Soviet Union for its engineering achievements. Conservatives thought that Soviet engineering prowess made them more threatening, not less so.


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20 Responses to Three Axes and Communism

  1. collin says:

    I would argue it was competing civilized people in 1950 to convert as many ‘barbarian’ (Third world) nations to the cause. The US in sense won because China was truly third world during Mao and never grew out of it while never really forging strong alliances with the Soviets.

    The main fear of the Soviets was they could force the population to reach certain goals. However, it was evident in the 1980s there were severe problems because it seemed weird that the population had to wait in long lines for toilet paper and the Soviets were losing Afghanistan.

    • collin says:

      I do find it the historically contradictory points, is the US poor, minority and working classes had their largest income increases (1950 – 1965) during this period of strong anti-communism. And union acceptance was at an all time high during this period. (I suspect this is because after WW2 and the depression baby bust there was a global labor shortage.) Of the strong-communism led to Vietnam which had a terrible negative effect on most working class families.

  2. S says:

    It is the Universalism and Equalism at the heart of communism that is rejected by the right. The right believes in human inequality and hierarchy. Thats what Civilization is, the proper order of things. Communism rejects that order for a sort of social entropy, like the Great Nothing that will remove all differences, all hierarchy.

    • Weir says:

      A man is an individual with a conscience of his own, endowed like every other man with a right to work as he wills or to worship as he wills. An idea rejected by Lenin, and the ruling elite of the Communist Party.

  3. B Reynolds says:

    Though they were not considered barbarians in the way today’s jihadists are, the Russians were described as willing to fight to the death for their country’s wishes of world domination.

    This is how the uneasy alliance formed between conservatives and libertarians for many decades. Both were wary of the communists. The conservatives because of the communists’ atheism. The libertarians because of their authoritarianism.

    Same enemy, different reasons. This is why the conservative/libertarian alliance is untenable.

    • Weir says:

      The Communists weren’t just atheists, though. They rejected the idea that we are all children of god, that we are all equals, that we are all capable of acting morally, and making decisions for ourselves. The Communists rejected the egalitarianism and universalism of Christianity specifically, and not of “religion” in general. Think of the ancient Romans. The Romans were religious, too, but their religion was nothing like Paul’s or Augustine’s. Roman religion was hierarchical and tribal. Roman religion and Roman slavery were compatible in a way that slavery and Christianity just aren’t. Communism and slavery, on the other hand, are more than compatible.

  4. Andrew' says:

    How many people were sacrificed to the cosmonaut program? It’s pretty barbaric. You can accomplish a lot of industrial “progress” when nothing else is sacred.

    I liken the Russian space program to China buying Olympic medals and World Cups or North Korean dance numbers. It is basically a fraud. They have a large extent of a market and can sacrifice a lot to theatrical presentations.

    • Andrew' says:

      Btw, didn’t people like Rothbard emphasize a distinction between the leaders/system and the people? Would the millions purged consider communism barbaric if they could be asked? It turns out we didn’t have much to fear from the system as long as we could keep the war cold, or maybe we just got lucky.

  5. One of the dudes says:

    Think civilization-barbarism is a wrong axis…

    If nothing else, if you assume more education = more civilization and look at the negative correlation between education and religion the USSR was more, not less, civilized than the religious West. Also I think it had greater women’s participation in the workplace, etc.

    The unambiguously applicable axis is freedom-coercion.

  6. darf ferrara says:

    I think your explanation is good, but the progressives that don’t fit the narrative are interesting too. How do Bertrand Russell and George Orwell, both anti-USSR, fit in?

  7. Michael says:

    To some extent this explains the conventional Western confusion about China. From the 60s to the 80s, leftists in the West had few complaints about human rights abuses in China. It was only from the 90s on, when the country became notionally capitalist, that it became a thing to denounce. Once enough symbols of Oppression entered the mix–stock markets, billionaires, etc.–it was clear to proceed.

    The Chinese elites, modern and ancient, subscribe to Civ-Barb to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of any Western conservative (or three-axis theorist). They endorse that barbaric uses of power by a central state are the essence of civilization, or at least its survival. Trying to depict the country as freedom-bound because of its stock market, or liberation-bound because people use the internet, is a misunderstanding. The communism was all in the service of an older ideology that’s been there since the early Middle Ages.

    • Jeff R. says:

      The Chinese elites, modern and ancient, subscribe to Civ-Barb to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of any Western conservative (or three-axis theorist). They endorse that barbaric uses of power by a central state are the essence of civilization, or at least its survival.

      If that’s true, I think it would lend considerable credence to Robin Hanson’s farmers vs. foragers framework.

  8. Ben Kennedy says:

    Rothbard also blamed the north for the Civil War, but was very clear on his position on slavery. On communism (

    “At the root of all forms of communism, compulsory or voluntary, lies a profound hatred of individual excellence, a denial of the natural or intellectual superiority of some men over others, and a desire to tear down every individual to the level of a communal ant-heap. In the name of a phony ‘humanism’, an irrational and profoundly anti-human egalitarianism is to rob every individual of his specific and precious humanity.”

  9. JK Brown says:

    Communism, i.e., revolutionary socialism, sought to impose total socialism via murder and violence. It was also an external force working to undermine the workings of other “civilizations” (nations). The incremental socialists, who set on the long march through the institutions, the “anticommunist liberals”, saw the violence as barbaric, but also as a threat to their ultimate domination.

    The conservatives saw communism for what it was, a return to enslavement of the majority of the people. They reflected the remnants of classical liberalism. Civilization had grown past the servile ideology (well, for a few decades as by the New Deal, enslavement to the society was coming into fashion even in the US.)

    “What these self-styled “anticommunist liberals” are fighting against is not communism as such, but a communist system in which they themselves are not at the helm. What they are aiming at is a socialist, i.e., communist, system in which they themselves or their most intimate friends hold the reins of government. It would perhaps be too much to say that they are burning with a desire to liquidate other people. They simply do not wish to be liquidated. In a socialist commonwealth, only the supreme autocrat and his abettors have this assurance.”
    –Mises, Ludwig von (2010-12-23). The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (LvMI) (p. 55).

    “First, what is the best the socialists, in their writings, can offer us? What do the most optimistic of them say? That our subsistence will be guaranteed, while we work; that some of us, the best of us, may earn a surplus above what is actually necessary for our subsistence; and that surplus, like a good child, we may “keep to spend.” We may not use it to better our condition, we may not, if a fisherman, buy another boat with it, if a farmer, another field ; we may not invest it, or use it productively ; but we can spend it like the good child, on candy — on something we consume, or waste it, or throw it away.

    “Could not the African slave do as much? In fact, is not this whole position exactly that of the negro slave? He, too, was guaranteed his sustenance; he, too, was allowed to keep and spend the extra money he made by working overtime; but he was not allowed to better his condition, to engage in trade, to invest it, to change his lot in life. Precisely what makes a slave is that he is allowed no use of productive capital to make wealth on his own account. The only difference is that under socialism, I may not be compelled to labor (I don’t even know as to that — socialists differ on the point), actually compelled, by the lash, or any other force than hunger. And the only other difference is that the negro slave was under the orders of one man, while the subject of socialism will be under the orders of a committee of ward heelers. You will say, the slave could not choose his master, but we shall elect the ward politician. So we do now. Will that help much? Suppose the man with a grievance didn’t vote for him?”
    –“Socialism; a speech delivered in Faneuil hall, February 7th, 1903, by Frederic J. Stimson

  10. I’ve been thinking whether there are key concepts that lie at the root of the axes Arnold has identified. I’ve been considering whether the desire for order explains the civilization/barbarism axis, autonomy for the libertarian freedom/coercion axis and equality for the liberal oppressor/oppressed axis. When the question came up about how Communism falls into this I thought at first that this might refute my attempt to identify the underlying premises. I say this because a totalitarian regime seeks order too although it is not based on the religion or tradition foundation that conservatives favor. However, I’d say the ultimate purpose of the order communism imposes is to achieve equality. “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” is the statement that captures the intent behind communism. Anyway, food for thought.

    • Andrew' says:

      I get a micromanagement vibe from lefties. They want The Fed and fiscal policy to micromanage the economy. We need carbon credits to finely tune the weather. Just put the right people in charge of wars and wars won’t be chaotic and there will be none of those ethnically-based war crimes. Etc.

      If you think in terms of ‘languages that resonate’ that would imply that fascism is the version bureaucratic totalitarianism that resonates with righties: order with lip service to the old orders. Communism resonates with lefties: designed order that defunds inequalities of the old order. They are both fraudulent because in practice they end up at roughly the same place.

      • I agree. Both of these perspectives look at things through a collective view point rather than individual. Order and equality look at groups complying with an overriding objective while the libertarian perspective is individualist.

        • Andrew' says:

          I was leaving the possibility of a libertarian blindspot, but I wasn’t going to offer one.

        • Lord says:

          I wouldn’t really say so. Order operates both top down and bottom up and asks both what a subject owes their leader and leader their subjects but does tend towards a many to one relationship of authority. Equality/equity operates symmetrically and ask what do we owe each other so is as much one to one as many to one of justice. Freedom can look at this individually but is most categorical at rejecting the many to one relationship of government over the people and owing nothing.

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