Dictatorships and the Democrats

Bloomberg waffles on China while Sanders has a soft spot for Castro.

While we generally agree that last night’s debate was terrible and did little to change the momentum of the race, Daniel Larison and I disagree considerably on this:

Mike Bloomberg was finally challenged to defend his claim that Xi Jinping is not a dictator. His response was extremely awkward and invited well-deserved mockery from Sanders. Bloomberg explained that Xi had to answer to members of the Politburo, as if that made him any less of a dictator. Sanders was attacked for his alleged sympathy with communist governments in the past, and he responded with a full-throated rejection of authoritarianism then and now. Unfortunately, too much of the foreign policy section was consumed by this “denounce a dictator” exercise and many other issues were neglected as a result.

Larison has some worthwhile thoughts on those other issues. But I think he’s mistaken on this one.

I’ve long dismissed Bloomberg’s claim that Xi isn’t a dictator on practical grounds: Bloomberg was and remains a businessman doing substantial business in China. Calling Xi a “dictator” would have had no value and risked access to the world’s biggest market.

Beyond that, Bloomberg’s post hoc explanation isn’t terrible. While Xi has consolidated power in a way no Chinese leader has since Deng Xiaoping —maybe even Mao Zedong—he isn’t a “dictator” in the way most people use that term. He does, in effect, answer to the Politburo as a board of directors. And, even though the Chinese Communist Party is a strongly authoritarian government that is creeping back toward totalitarianism with its social credit program, it at least loosely answers to the people through a system of performance-based legitimacy.

The bottom line is that, while I have other concerns about a Bloomberg presidency, a lack of understanding of what he’s dealing with in China is not among them.

By contrast, I think Sanders’ past and continued support of communist systems worthy of attention. Of course he denounces the worst aspects of Stalin and Castro and I have zero fear that he wants to emulate those here. But he’s an unreconstructed 1960s leftist who truly admires the communist ideal and sees the excesses of the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba as no worse than the excesses of the United States.

Tom Malinowski, a Democratic Congressman from New Jersey who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration, put it this way:

Tablet magazine’s Yair Rosenberg expands on that idea:

Again: I absolutely believe Sanders when he says he doesn’t and never did endorse the horrible human rights abuses of these regimes. He is not now and never was a full-blown Communist. But he was and is a fellow traveler. He admires the idea of a Communist system even while he deplores the bad people who have always emerged to run them.

What Sanders doesn’t understand is that the two are inseparable. As my colleague Doug Streusand likes to say, attempts to create utopia invariably lead to dystopia.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Government, Mike Bloomberg, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. wr says:

    But this just boils down to the standard Republican mantra:

    If an authoritarian regime allows US corporations to make money, then they are good and we must ignore all the bad they do — as in Pinochet’s Chile and Duterte’s Phillipines.

    If an authoritarian regime does not allow US corporations to make money, then they are completely evil and we are not allowed to acknowledge any good they do.

    It’s nothing more than rooting for your team, while disguised as serious political and moral debate.

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  2. Kathy says:

    I’ve asked whether communism requires a totalitarian dictatorship. I know all communist countries were established that way, or developed one quickly, or had one imposed (see Eastern Europe). Since Marx called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” we may conclude it’s baked in.

    Regardless, the big problem with communism is that a government can neither plan nor run an economy that produces enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, never mind everyone’s wants beyond subsistence. That caused far more misery and suffering than the repressive apparatus of state supremacy.

    The various capitalist and mixed economy systems outside the communist sphere have proven far better at this basic task.

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  3. Kurtz says:

    But he was and is a fellow traveler.

    Unreconstructed 60s leftism vs. unreconstructed McCartheyism.

    10
  4. An Interested Party says:

    By contrast, I think Sanders’ past and continued support of communist systems worthy of attention.

    If Sanders wins the nomination, this line of attack will be used daily, and simply waving it away as “Republicans do this to all Democrats” is a bit of wishful thinking…this line of attack will be far more damaging to Sanders than it would be to, say, Biden or Bloomberg…

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  5. CSK says:

    Discussions like this invariably remind me of a late acquaintance of mine, who maintained that no country came close to mainland China in terms of real virtue and caring for its citizens. His rationale? “They feed 500 million people! No one goes hungry!”

    You could not convince this guy that China was ever at fault for anything.

    9
  6. drj says:

    This makes no sense whatsoever.

    While Xi Jinping is perhaps not a single, all-powerful dictator, China is, undoubtedly, a dictatorship. They have concentration camps, ffs.

    (Also, Xi is much, much more powerful than his immediate predecessors.)

    But you still give Bloomberg a pass for spouting some bullshit about collective leadership, while condemning Sanders for saying that Castro did some good things in addition to the bad.

    Of course, it would be something else if Sanders said something along the lines of: “Castro’s so-called excesses were really not as bad as those of the mainstream make them out to be.”

    THAT would be bad.

    But you know what? That is basically what Bloomberg said about China.

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  7. Kit says:

    He admires the idea of a Communist system even while he deplores the bad people who have always emerged to run them.

    It seems to me that you are conflating Bernie’s praise for some of the achievements of communism with an endorsement of the ideals and very system of communism itself. After all, he does describe himself as a socialist with a particular admiration of the Nordic Model.

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  8. R.Dave says:

    @wr: Is there no third option in your view? Are we all obligated to pick our preferred flavor of one-sided hypocrisy and go with it, or can we, you know, just be intellectually honest and apply the same moral opprobrium to all authoritarian regimes regardless of their left/right window dressing?

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  9. Anonne says:

    @Kit:

    It seems to me that you are conflating Bernie’s praise for some of the achievements of communism with an endorsement of the ideals and very system of communism itself. After all, he does describe himself as a socialist with a particular admiration of the Nordic Model.

    This is exactly it. This conflation is, to me, pea-brained politics. One can abhor the authoritarian nature of the two major communist regimes and still acknowledge some of the things that they were able to achieve. We can’t have an honest discussion about economics and politics if we are not allowed to honestly assess the performance of these regimes.

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  10. Scott says:

    This seems to go back to the arguments Jeanne Kirkpatrick made in the 80s differentiating autocratic regimes and communist regimes. Her argument was basically that autocrats weren’t as bad because they left people alone in their lives while communists tried to change people and society. In reality, the only thing I could sense different was that if autocrats were on our side it was OK.

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  11. R.Dave says:

    @An Interested Party: @An Interested Party: If Sanders wins the nomination, this line of attack will be used daily, and simply waving it away as “Republicans do this to all Democrats” is a bit of wishful thinking…this line of attack will be far more damaging to Sanders than it would be to, say, Biden or Bloomberg…

    Yeah, it’s basically the mirror image of the Trump supporters’ argument that Dems call every Republican a racist, so there’s no point in worrying about whether it’s more or less applicable to any particular candidate. Politically, there’s maybe a kernel of truth to that attitude, but Trump’s poll numbers show it actually does matter. And morally, it should make a world of difference whether the person you’re supporting is actually racist (or in this case, actually admires communist systems).

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  12. drj says:

    @Scott:

    Her argument was basically that autocrats weren’t as bad because they left people alone in their lives while communists tried to change people and society.

    Yeah, Batista (for example) favoring his corrupt cronies to the detriment of the average Cuban citizen = totally leaving people alone in their lives.

    Uh huh.

    5
  13. Kurtz says:

    @Kathy:

    Transitions are generally unworkable.

    It wouldn’t be all that different if we were to do away with all economic regulations. Even if a free market is a form of spontaneous order, it requires a blank slate–simply dismantling economic regulations doesn’t do away with private vested interests.

    Seizing all private property is an attempt to create a starting point. It doesn’t work.

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  14. Kathy says:

    @Scott:

    The argument boils down to “But he’s our son of a bitch.”

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  15. R.Dave says:

    @Kathy: That may have been Kirkpatrick’s motive for making the argument Scott highlighted, but it’s not the actual argument being made. You’re avoiding having to engage the argument by attacking the motive.

    1
  16. Kit says:

    Stalin doubled literacy in the Soviet Union, even as he murdered tens of millions of people.

    What a strange example this is when I stop to think about it. If you wish to remind me that the Soviet Union’s great and objective triumphs in space came at the cost of immense suffering of its own people, then I think you have a great point – a free nation should find it shameful to so lose sight of the well being of its citizens. But literacy? Really? How many people were shot so that Johnny could read? No, the shame in this case is on us – how could such otherwise barbaric countries better us in the most basic obligations of civilization?

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  17. Robert Sharperson says:

    Spot on James!!!!!

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  18. R.Dave says:

    @Kit: How many people were shot so that Johnny could read?

    Tens of millions. That’s the whole point of totalitarian ideologies – everything is linked, so deviation in any area of life will inevitably lead to deviation in other areas until the system itself is threatened, meaning even minor deviations must be harshly suppressed. In order for the system to survive so Johnny can read, Sarah must be shot because she complained about her family farm being collectivized. In order for the Revolution to succeed, the Kulaks must be liquidated.

    Of course, we know it’s bunk. You don’t have to shoot Sarah in order to teach Johnny how to read. But the communists themselves didn’t accept that. They actually did think shooting Sarah was necessary, and they both argued and acted accordingly. So yeah, praising Soviet literacy rates is, according to the Soviets’ own ideology, inseparable from praising or at least accepting the alleged necessity of their brutal repression and mass murder.

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  19. MarkedMan says:

    James, I admit that I’m only an interested amateur when it comes to Chinese balcony watching, but I’m pretty sure you are out of date with this:

    He does, in effect, answer to the Politburo as a board of directors.

    For 3 (4?) decades it held true that the Politburo had seized power back from the Premier after Mao. And Premiers were strictly limited to no more than two five year terms, with the successor being chosen and groomed during the second five years. Further, the Premier was prevented from holding a number of important offices simultaneously with the Premiership. Xi has changed all that. He used the anti corruption campaign to get rid of the politburo members holding those important seats and replace them with his stooges. More recently, he has taken a number of them himself, directly. And in the last year or so has changed the rules about succession. No successor has been identified, much less groomed. It is pretty obvious he has no intention of honoring the 10 year tradition and my understanding is that he now controls all the levers of power. There is no one left who could stop him.

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  20. wr says:

    @CSK: “You could not convince this guy that China was ever at fault for anything.”

    And it sounds like he could never convince you that China had ever done any good. And neither is true.

    The fact is that China is a repressive autocracy with little to no respect for human rights and a strong belief that the needs of the citizen are insignificant compared to the needs of the citizenry AND that they raised more people out of poverty than any other nation in history.

    That they throw ethnic and religious minorities into concentration camps AND they have transformed a peasant economy into one of the world’s most powerful nations.

    Why is it so hard for some people to hold both thoughts in their heads? Why do we have to pretend that the people we like are all good and the people we don’t like are all bad? How does this help us at all?

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  21. wr says:

    @R.Dave: “Is there no third option in your view?”

    The third option is exactly what I’m arguing for — that it is the rare regime that is either all good or all bad, and that we should embrace the good (and learn from it if possible) and condemn (and work to change, if possible) the bad.

    Which I believe was Bernie’s point…

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  22. CSK says:

    @wr:
    You misunderstand. My acquaintance could not hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts in his head. I can, and do.

    2
  23. gVOR08 says:

    What Bernie actually said is pretty anodyne, and irrelevant. China is something we have to deal with. China will dominate foreign policy for the foreseeable future. Cuba we can deal with anytime by returning to Obama’s policy. Last I heard, like Franco, Fidel Castro is still dead. Roy Edroso has the final say on this:

    Even if you are not old but have read about red-baiting in a history book, you will know that back in the middle of the last goddamn century, calling someone a communist — or even a communist sympathizer (as Rod Dreher of The American Conservative called Sanders yesterday) — was an acceptable way to freeze someone out of the discourse, no matter how irrelevant the characterization was.

    I remember this and I also remember that in some circles (like Mad magazine!) red-baiting was an object of ridicule. I didn’t know then that it had been an object of ridicule for years before that, going back to the beatniks, The Manchurian Candidate, and Joseph Welch. But as I grew older it became more obvious that red-baiting was some bullshit, and anyone who pulled it was probably trying to get away with something. In fact culture reflected that: Red-baiters were figures of fun, obviously flim-flam men, the Tartuffes of democracy.

    Red baiting is so 1960s.

    That said, when we say a thing is bad, we need to be clear whether we mean really bad, i.e. morally or intellectually bad, or just politically bad. For Bernie to say anything nice about the Cuban regime was careless and extremely impolitic. The Rs will redbait the heck out of any D nominee, they’ll call Bloomberg a Commie if he wins the nomination. But it’ll work better with Bernie.

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  24. James Joyner says:

    @wr:

    If an authoritarian regime allows US corporations to make money, then they are good and we must ignore all the bad they do — as in Pinochet’s Chile and Duterte’s Phillipines.

    If an authoritarian regime does not allow US corporations to make money, then they are completely evil and we are not allowed to acknowledge any good they do.

    So, no. Nobody of consequence ever argues that dictators that cooperate with us are good people or have systems that we should emulate. It’s always Realpolitic: National interest trumps all. Raison de tat. It’s often summarized, as noted by @Kit: @Kathy downthread, “He may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.”

    @drj:

    While Xi Jinping is perhaps not a single, all-powerful dictator, China is, undoubtedly, a dictatorship. They have concentration camps, ffs.

    “Dictatorship” isn’t a regime type but we typically use it to describe all-powerful non-monarchical rulers. But, yes, the PRC has, as I note in the post, an authoritarian regime type that is quickly re-approaching totalitarianism. (I think it’s easier to argue that Mao was a dictator than Xi, as he essentially was the CCP in a way that Xi is not.)

    @Kit:

    It seems to me that you are conflating Bernie’s praise for some of the achievements of communism with an endorsement of the ideals and very system of communism itself.

    Because I think it’s more than that. Honeymooning in the USSR was about more than his love of Nordic-style socialized medicine.

    @Anonne:

    One can abhor the authoritarian nature of the two major communist regimes and still acknowledge some of the things that they were able to achieve. We can’t have an honest discussion about economics and politics if we are not allowed to honestly assess the performance of these regimes.

    Of course! Rosenberg makes exactly that point. But most of us would express this the way @Kit did downthread: That we should be ashamed that we’re not providing the level of basic human services that even evil regime such-and-such provides.

    @R.Dave:

    That’s the whole point of totalitarian ideologies – everything is linked, so deviation in any area of life will inevitably lead to deviation in other areas until the system itself is threatened, meaning even minor deviations must be harshly suppressed. […] So yeah, praising Soviet literacy rates is, according to the Soviets’ own ideology, inseparable from praising or at least accepting the alleged necessity of their brutal repression and mass murder.

    Exactly. It’s what Streusand means when he says attempts to implement utopia are invariably dystopian in practice.

    Now, I think Bernie simply doesn’t understand this. He is, in this particular way, a naif. It’s a blind spot. So he honestly doesn’t understand why he’s being criticized so harshly for stating basic facts.

    7
  25. R.Dave says:

    @R.Dave: Sorry to reply to my own comment, but I want to clarify / supplement my final point:

    So yeah, praising Soviet literacy rates is, according to the Soviets’ own ideology, inseparable from praising or at least accepting the alleged necessity of their brutal repression and mass murder.

    The phrase “according to the Soviets’ own ideology” is a key modifier there. I’m not arguing that praising Soviet (or Cuban) literacy actually *is* inseparable from praising the brutality of the underlying system that produced it; just that the Soviets thought it was. Beyond that, though, and more importantly for our current purposes, I am also arguing that Soviet literacy and Soviet repression/murder were inherently linked because the Soviets themselves linked them, so although praising one doesn’t necessarily mean praising the other, praising one does unavoidably invoke the other. Further, since the moral good of Soviet literacy is orders of magnitude less significant than the moral evil of Soviet repression/murder, going out of your way to praise the literacy rate is morally obtuse at best and, in my view and the view of many others, morally grotesque.

    2
  26. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: Xi has absolutely seized back more of the levers of power. He’s nowhere near as powerful as Mao, in my understanding, but may well be more powerful than Deng.

  27. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    For Bernie to say anything nice about the Cuban regime was careless and extremely impolitic.

    To be clear, if this was a one-off, I wouldn’t even have bothered to write about it. I don’t think this was a careless slip but rather part of a lifelong pattern.

    4
  28. drj says:

    @R.Dave:

    Sarah must be shot because she complained about her family farm being collectivized. In order for the Revolution to succeed, the Kulaks must be liquidated.

    Of course, we know it’s bunk. You don’t have to shoot Sarah in order to teach Johnny how to read.

    Not to defend the Soviet Union, but your take is much too simplistic.

    In the actual, practical context of early 20th-century Tsarist Russia, some people DID have to be shot in order to teach Johnny to read.

    Or do you really think that Grand Duke Nicholas or Count Sergey would have been willing to part with some of their wealth in order to finance education for filthy peasants? Who was going to make them?

    The fact that serfdom wasn’t abolished in Russia until 1861 should tell you something.

    It literally took a revolution to introduce something that looked like democracy in Russia.

    Of course, the Bolsheviks had a revolution of their own soon afterwards – and things went downhill fast – but you should really ask yourself why their methods could seem plausible at the time.

    5
  29. wr says:

    @CSK: Ah, sorry!

  30. wr says:

    @James Joyner: If you can’t distinguish between Castro and Stalin, it’s not Bernie who’s a bit of a naif.

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  31. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Dictatorship” isn’t a regime type but we typically use it to describe all-powerful non-monarchical rulers.

    You and I both know that the topic under consideration wasn’t the finer distinctions between oligarchy and autocracy, but the level of freedom that Chinese citizens enjoy.

    Oh, and by the way, “dictatorship” is a perfectly fine word to describe forms of government in which absolute power is concentrated in a small clique.

    3
  32. R.Dave says:

    @James Joyner: Now, I think Bernie simply doesn’t understand this. He is, in this particular way, a naif. It’s a blind spot. So he honestly doesn’t understand why he’s being criticized so harshly for stating basic facts.

    Agreed. So many of the people I know on the economic far left have that exact blind spot. It’s not that they approve of the crimes and abuses of these regimes – on the contrary, they’re actually among the most peaceful, empathetic, and well-intentioned people I know – but they just kind of hand-wave the abuses away as if they aren’t really relevant to the discussion or, at most, no different than the various transgressions of the US government over the centuries. They just don’t grok that violent revolution and totalitarian repression are inherent parts of Communist ideology itself, whereas that is not the case for liberal democratic/capitalist ideology.

    4
  33. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “Nobody of consequence ever argues that dictators that cooperate with us are good people or have systems that we should emulate. ”

    Nobody of consequence…

    Well, here the Washington Post editorial board on Pinochet at his death:

    “Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success. To the dismay of every economic minister in Latin America, he introduced the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle — and that not even Allende’s socialist successors have dared reverse.”

    That’s about three seconds worth of googling, and it’s avoiding the low-hanging fruit of Trump’s lavish praise for the worst of the worst.

    I don’t think you would read this paragraph and say the WAPO is in favor of torturing and murdering political opponents. But because Bernie rightly talks about Cuban health care, suddenly he is either a hard-core Stalinist or an idiot too dense to understand that totalitarianism is wrong.

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  34. Fortunato says:

    @James Joyner:

    So, no. Nobody of consequence ever argues that dictators that cooperate with us are good people or have systems that we should emulate.

    Assuming the POTUS and VPOTUS are people of ‘consequence’.

    6 Strongmen Trump Has Praised — And The Conflicts It Presents

    “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,”
    – Trump to Duterte.

    “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do.”
    – Trump, standing next to Putin, referring to the assembled press.

    Donald Trump on Erdogan –
    he has “a great relationship with the Kurds.”
    “Many Kurds live currently in Turkey, and they’re happy and taken care of,” Trump added, “including health care and education and other things.”

    Pence agrees with Trump: Calls Putin stronger than Obama

    On Modi –
    “The prime minister was incredible in what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom and very strongly,” Trump told reporters. ““He said that, in India, they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom.”

    New Delhi religious riots claim 17 lives in two days of violence

    The examples could continue, but why.

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  35. Mu Yixiao says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Xi has changed all that.

    Came here to say exactly what you did.

    It’s also telling that a few years ago he instructed the military to refer to him as “Chairman”, not “President”. That made some waves even inside China.

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  36. Kathy says:

    @R.Dave:

    IMO, that was the argument. The rest was rationalization in support.

    2
  37. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: oh, he is far, far more powerful than Deng. There is no question on that.

  38. Michael Reynolds says:

    It would have been so simple. What do I think of Castro? He’s a brutal dictator who filled his prisons with people who only wanted freedom. He tortures. And he’s left Cuba desperately poor. He also had a nice literacy program which in now way makes Castro anything but a monster.

    The problem is Bernie doesn’t actually think Castro’s a monster. I doubt he’d have answered a question about Hitler with, “Well, he built the autobahns…” His mush-brained 60’s era grasp of geopolitical reality has not advanced with age.

    At least Bloomberg can argue that Xi is too important to pick fights with, a weak enough rationale, but Cuba means nothing to us or the world.

    12
  39. R.Dave says:

    @drj: Not to defend the Soviet Union, but your take is much too simplistic. In the actual, practical context of early 20th-century Tsarist Russia, some people DID have to be shot in order to teach Johnny to read….It literally took a revolution to introduce something that looked like democracy in Russia. Of course, the Bolsheviks had a revolution of their own soon afterwards – and things went downhill fast – but you should really ask yourself why their methods could seem plausible at the time.

    Oh, I’m not denying that the Tsarist regime was intensely unjust and persistent or that a violent revolution may well have been more just than a multi-generational attempt at reform. I’m no pacifist. I’m just saying that the reason the violence of the Communists went so far beyond the violence necessary to topple the existing regime and then continued on for decades in the form of gulags and mass murders is that it’s baked into their ideology – their “Revolution” was intended to utterly reshape every facet of society and even human nature itself. That’s why Communist revolutions from Russia to China to Cuba invariably resulted in long-lasting repression and murder.

    3
  40. James Joyner says:

    @wr: That’s fair and I forgot how much praise was heaped on Pinochet. But I do think it somewhat different even than what Bernie is doing. The WaPo board wasn’t saying that we could learn something from Pinochet—just that he was a step up from the alternative. It’s the same sort of soft racism that has many pining for the days of Saddam: these people aren’t ready for democracy.

    @wr:

    If you can’t distinguish between Castro and Stalin, it’s not Bernie who’s a bit of a naif.

    They’re in the same category, not the same scale. Stalin was a monster in a way that even Brezhnev, who ordered some horrible things, was not. But, partly, that’s because he was all-powerful and Brezhnev wasn’t. Castro was all-powerful in Cuba and, while he certainly didn’t order millions killed, he led an enormously evil regime. (And I say that as someone who thought we should have normalized relations and removed the sanctions decades before we did.)

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The problem is Bernie doesn’t actually think Castro’s a monster. I doubt he’d have answered a question about Hitler with, “Well, he built the autobahns…” His mush-brained 60’s era grasp of geopolitical reality has not advanced with age.

    Yes.

    @Mu Yixiao:

    It’s also telling that a few years ago he instructed the military to refer to him as “Chairman”, not “President”. That made some waves even inside China.

    Fair point. I may well be under-evaluating the degree of change that has taken place under Xi’s consolidation.

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  41. Jen says:

    Politics often seems to be about about drawing absolute distinctions when it is too challenging to explain nuance.

    A prime example of how problematic black-and-white thinking is would be the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Women were educated right alongside men, and pictures of Kabul during this time showed women in modern dress. Can we conclude that the Soviet occupation was a good thing? No, of course not, and the Afghan people fought hard to push the Soviets out (with a little help from Cong. Charlie Wilson, of course). But were women better off? I’d say a qualified yes.

    But that doesn’t fit a narrative that we find comfortable.

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  42. An Interested Party says:

    His mush-brained 60’s era grasp of geopolitical reality has not advanced with age.

    The Sixty Trillion Dollar Man has unrealistic ideas about a lot of things…

    3
  43. James Joyner says:

    @Jen:

    But that doesn’t fit a narrative that we find comfortable.

    I guess it depends on the “we.” It’s a perfectly reasonable conversation to have in an academic setting. Or even a journalistic one. It’s hard to do in a political setting, though, because the caveats are almost always going to be presented out of context.

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  44. Michael Reynolds says:

    Simple-minded dualist (or Manichaean) framing is an underlying problem in politics. If X is good then Y must be evil. Why can’t both X and Y be evil? Maybe X and Y are both different shades of gray. Maybe in addition to X and Y there’s also a Z. If fascists bad then communists good? If Batista bad then Castro good? There’s more moral and philosophical nuance by far in books I write for 12 year-olds, FFS.

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  45. Hal_10000 says:

    I don’t think you can ignore the history here. There was a long period of time where the Left Wing in this country basically ignored the crimes of communism or excused them or even denied them. When people would have pictures of mass murderers like Mao and Che and Stalin hanging on their walls. When America was portrayed as the bad guy in the Cold War. And, to be honest, there are still people running around trying to spout revisionist history about that era. Or that go to Venezuela or Cuba and get the guided tour and proclaim that everything they saw was wonderful.

    The Right Wing, for all their faults, rarely pretended the likes of Pinochet were awesome dudes. In fact, GOP Presidents were more than happy to kick guys like Marcos out the door. At worst, their attitude was, “He’s a bastard; but he’s OUR bastard.” You don’t see Republicans running around in shirts with pictures of Pinochet or Franco emblazoned on them.

    Of course, that’s history. The relevance to this is more that it shows gullibility and poor judgement on the part of Bernie that he made excuses for Cuba and *still* makes excuses for them. Fortunately, for him, his opponent in this race is a Grade-A Born Sucker who kisses the backside of every bloodthirsty idiot he can press his wrinkly orange lips to.

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  46. Jay L Gischer says:

    I don’t want to belittle James’ concerns, but there’s something about this conversation that feels very retro and not super relevant.

    For instance, I would happily describe China as totalitarian in nature, but I would hesitate, like, a lot, to call it communist. They happily make deals with Apple to make iPhones. That doesn’t sound like the Communists I once knew. Party loyalists run businesses that make lots of money. “Child of Party Official” is a specific class of privileged individual. Is that Communism? I don’t really think so. I’m not seeing that they think this is a transitional phase toward a system that is more egalitarian, either.

    I’m not sure there are any Communist nations left in the world. There are a lot of totalitarians out there, though. Some of those regimes have nationalized things like oil revenue, and distribute it among the citizenry. Of course, the State of Alaska does this, too. Would you describe them as Communist?

    10
  47. Stormy Dragon says:

    Shorter Dr. Joyner:

    It’s okay to be an apologist for autocracy if you’re getting rich off it, but if you do it because you want better social services for the poor, you’re a monster.

    9
  48. R.Dave says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Some of those regimes have nationalized things like oil revenue, and distribute it among the citizenry. Of course, the State of Alaska does this, too. Would you describe them as Communist?

    Well, you can see Russia from there, so….

    4
  49. drj says:

    @R.Dave:

    Again, I’m not trying to defend communism here, but you are approaching this topic in a manner that lacks crucial context. You condemn communists and communist sympathizers for not adhering to the norms of liberal democracy, while liberal democracy is not always something that’s on the menu.

    To illustrate this further, let’s move for a moment from the Soviet Union to Southern Africa. Communism and communism-adjacent ideas were big factors in national liberation ideology – think ANC and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.

    Should they have attempted a “multi-generational attempt at reform?” How would that even work: each year a little bit less white supremacy?

    I’m just saying that the reason the violence of the Communists went so far beyond the violence necessary to topple the existing regime…

    Their violence went – at least partially – so far because after the existing regime would be toppled, the default would not be liberal democracy, but the previously existing regime in a somewhat different shape, i.e. autocracy in Russia, white supremacy in South Africa and Rhodesia, a dictatorship dominated by Catholics in Vietnam.

    The alternative to communist health care in Cuba was not a well-functioning private insurance market, but poor people dying in the streets.

    Praising Castro for his health care is also to offer a counterweight to the notion that the country should be run for all eternity by a United Fruit stooge – which would have been the actual alternative at the time, as well as the preferred outcome of US elites. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a thing, you know.

    Not praising Castro for his health care is, in a way, to conceal Batista’s evil.

    And I’m saying this as someone who is decidedly not a Castro fan.

    10
  50. R.Dave says:

    @Stormy Dragon: No, at the risk of being presumptuous, I think “shorter Dr. Joyner” would be:

    A transactional attitude toward non-ideological autocracies is undesirable in a Presidential candidate but less concerning than a favorable attitude toward totalitarian autocracies based on a degree of shared ideology with them.

    4
  51. drj says:

    @Hal_10000:

    My man, you are bullshitting.

    The Right Wing, for all their faults, rarely pretended the likes of Pinochet were awesome dudes. In fact, GOP Presidents were more than happy to kick guys like Marcos out the door.

    Remember Hayek’s praise for Pinochet? Or George Bush the elder praising Ferdinand Marcos in 1981 for for his “adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic processes?”

    Well, I do.

    19
  52. Jen says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    For instance, I would happily describe China as totalitarian in nature, but I would hesitate, like, a lot, to call it communist. They happily make deals with Apple to make iPhones.

    In the late ’80s, they called this “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” I remember this well after writing a lengthy term paper on the Special Economic Zones that were set up in China to encourage business investment.

    That I remember details from a term paper written ~30 years ago shows how interesting I found this topic!

    3
  53. An Interested Party says:

    The Right Wing, for all their faults, rarely pretended the likes of Pinochet were awesome dudes. In fact, GOP Presidents were more than happy to kick guys like Marcos out the door.

    Oh really? It was during Republican administrations when American assistance helped to bring the Shah to power in Iran and Pinochet to power in Chile…sure, it’s really horrible that there are t-shirts with Che’s face on them that certain people like to wear, but it was actual U.S. policy that helped right-wing dictators around the world…and the circle is complete as we have the latest GOP president who loves despots…

    14
  54. Chip Daniels says:

    @drj:
    The Communist governments of the 20th century almost never arose in a liberal democracy, but in failed dictatorships.

    What’s interesting is to consider a counterfactual:
    What if the Bolshevik Revolution had failed, and the Czar had remained on the throne; How would Russian history have been different?

    Of course these exercises are always filled with guesswork, but its reasonable to think that after a disastrous European war and attempted overthrow of a weak Czar, the Russian nobility would have searched for a stronger, more ruthless successor to assure this could never happen again.

    Someone like, say, a Stalin, the strong man who would make the rabble obey. Who wouldn’t be averse to doing whatever it took to secure power and create a safe buffer of vassal states to the west.

    Meaning that the choice in 1917 wasn’t between Communism and liberal democracy, it was almost certainly a choice between two different forms of totalitarianism.

    Its entirely possible that the post WWII era would have seen a Cold War between a capitalist West and capitalist Russia fighting for control of Eastern Europe.

    In other words, what is happening right now.

    And guess who is on which side?

    4
  55. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The problem is Bernie doesn’t actually think Castro’s a monster.

    This. Bernie oh so carefully threads the needle in what he says. People who hate him never get beyond the initial comment, and aren’t interested in getting beyond it. But people who are favorable walk away truly believing that Bernie repudiated Castro and merely commented on something that actually improved in Cuba. But he didn’t actually do that. He repudiated Castro’s human rights violations. To my knowledge, he has never repudiated Castro as a whole. And that’s telling. Because my impression of Bernie is that, taking everything I’ve learned about him over the past several decades, is that he views himself as a hell of lot closer to Castro than Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi.

    It reminds me of the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. He converted to Islam and became a devout follower of the Ayatollah Khomeini. At some point he went on a reputation scrubbing tour and I listened to him on more than one talk show where he said, in a very convoluted way that the Ayatollah was right to impose a fatwa on Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie on sight*. But because the way he said this was so convoluted and involved him stating he would be against various other types of fatwahs that didn’t have anything to do with this one, and that he sincerely regretted if circumstances required such a fatwah (all in a gentle and charming tone of voice and much splitting and resplitting of hairs), interviewer after interviewer came away bubbling about how Cat Stevens repudiated the fatwah. Given the incredible lengths he went to avoid actually condemning the fatwah or the Ayatollah himself it is pretty obvious he supported both.

    *For the young uns in this crowd, Rushdie is an author who the Ayatollah condemned to be murdered, nominally because he had insulted Islam in a book but actually because he had written a short story a couple of years previously that presented an extremely unflattering portrait of a “fictional” Ayatollah in exile in London. It was pretty obvious this fictional Ayatollah was actually Khomeini.

    5
  56. Mu Yixiao says:

    @James Joyner:

    Fair point. I may well be under-evaluating the degree of change that has taken place under Xi’s consolidation.

    While I first moved to China (fall of ’11), a colleague made the comment: “In daily life, China has much more freedom than America.” I (of course) balked at the idea. But after a couple weeks I began to see what he meant. The US is full of “little laws” (e.g. no smoking, no drinking in the park, permits for every little thing, etc.) which China didn’t have.

    Out of that “freedom” came vast street markets, convoys of food carts that would pop up for 2 hours at breakfast and disappear until dinner time, city parks turned into flea markets every Saturday, “restaurant row” becoming semi-permanent under bridges, day-labor markets on random street corners, and little brothels tucked in next to welding shops and window stores. It was a vibrant, fascinating side to the culture.

    When I left in the fall of ’17, almost all of that was gone. Police came through and swept it all away, little by little–in the name of “cleaning up the country”. It was a small-scale reflection of what Xi had been (and still is) doing at the national level. The last I heard, over 1 million government officials had been arrested on corruption charges.

    This is a purge. Most of the officials were imprisoned, some were executed. The rest fell in line.

    He changed the visa system to eliminate the “undesirables”, police regularly round up foreign workers (especially “white” ones) for random drug testing and visa checks. And I don’t need to remind you what he’s doing in Xinjiang.

    Last year at the “constitutional convention” (I can’t remember what the Chinese call it) he pushed through 2 important changes. 1) elimination of the 2-term limit, and 2) the inclusion of “Xi Thought” as a central precept of the Party’s core values.

    He’s doing (or has already done) all the things that Trump would love to–and he’s good at it.

    12
  57. drj says:

    @Chip Daniels:

    The Tsar actually abdicated a couple of months (March 1917) before the Bolsheviks took power (November 1917).

    I suspect the nobility couldn’t have hung on in any case. But former Imperial officers like Admiral Kolchak or Anton Denikin could have conceivably defeated the Bolsheviks.

    2
  58. Hal_10000 says:

    @drj:

    I also remember that the Reagan Administration, through Laxait, was the one to tell Marcos to leave and then later placed him in confinement to prevent a coup attempt against Aquino. And the US also supported the plebiscite that eventually ousted Pinochet. And the main reason we supported them in the fist place was because we were in a Cold War with a murderous nuclear-armed Empire, which is a bit different from Lefties openly making kissy faces at the Evil Empire’s lackeys.

    5
  59. Kathy says:

    My quick and dirty primer:

    Communism: state ownership of the means of production.

    Mixed economy: some state ownership of the means of production, usually with the exclusive right to some sectors (ie energy), with the rest at least owned in part by private sector individuals.

    Capitalism: little or no state ownership of the means of production, most owned by private sector individuals.

    This naturally leaves out things like state-control of private industry through laws, regulations, directives, etc, as in some fascist systems. Not to mention economic activity by/for the state, like leasing federal/state lands and/or charging royalties for the use of such lands.

    3
  60. wr says:

    @Hal_10000: “The Right Wing, for all their faults, rarely pretended the likes of Pinochet were awesome dudes.”

    Right. They just sent them tens of millions of dollars, trained their death squads, helped run their torture chambers, gave them intelligence on political opponents to be kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and looked away when they murdered civilians. Or nuns. Because, you know, Communism is bad and we’re good.

    But some kid wearing a Che t-shirt, that’s the real moral abomination.

    14
  61. wr says:

    @Hal_10000: “The relevance to this is more that it shows gullibility and poor judgement on the part of Bernie that he made excuses for Cuba and *still* makes excuses for them.”

    Here’s a shocking concept: Maybe it’s not so much “poor judgment” as it is different judgment. That is, he looks at the same facts and comes to a solution that the Republican party and much of the foreign policy establishment disagrees with.

    And suddenly we’re living in a world where heresy and blasphemy are real things. How dare anyone disagree with the historical judgment of Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Dick Cheney?

    5
  62. wr says:

    @MarkedMan: Yes, clearly you’re right. Bernie Sanders wants to impose a totalitarian regime in the USA. Thank God you are wise enough to listen past the words he says and discover the meaning that only you can discern there.

    3
  63. wr says:

    @Hal_10000: “And the main reason we supported them in the fist place was because we were in a Cold War with a murderous nuclear-armed Empire, which is a bit different from Lefties openly making kissy faces at the Evil Empire’s lackeys.”

    And I can assure you the poor people in Iran, Chile, El Salvador and all those other countries were so happy that they were brutally tortured and murdered by people who love freedom instead of those horrible commies from the Evil Empire.

    How much better to see your child murdered by the nice nuclear-armed Empire instead of the wicked one.

    11
  64. Kurtz says:

    Because I think it’s more than that. Honeymooning in the USSR was about more than his love of Nordic-style socialized medicine.

    Respectfully, Dr. Joyner, you’re not giving a complete picture of the trip.
    It was an official visit as a mayor to establish a sister city relationship with a Soviet city. That kind of omission can be forgiven, if it’s a case of simple oversight. If it is willful, then it’s, at best, biased, and at worst, dishonest.

    Around the same time:

    Despite this new interest in city-to-city contacts between the superpowers, there are still some formidable political obstacles, at least on the American side.

    An effort by San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein earlier this year to make Leningrad a sister city was quietly shelved following opposition from members of San Francisco`s Jewish community, who are concerned about the plight of Soviet Jews.

    Feinstein, hardly an unreconstructed 60s Leftist sought a similar relationship with Leningrad, as did Philadelphia. The latter was fought by Lithuanians. In fact dozens of other cities sought to establish similar relationships with Soviet cities.

    Were all of those mayors card-carrying Marxist revolutionaries or were they mere fellow travellers?

    The concerns of Lithuanians, Jews, and Cubans are valid. But letting those concerns dictate a cultural exchange program during a period of general de-escalation is short-sighted.

    So the open, free society rejected the cultural olive branch of the closed, repressive society. The fact is this: by that point, it wasn’t Soviet fears of a seductive culture threatening the stability of the regime, it was US hardline opinion rejecting Soviet de-escalation.

    The failure to situate the Cuban Revolution with respect to the Cold War generally, and the Batista regime specifically, is just as disingenuous.

    To point out a few good things about authoritarian regimes isn’t a justification of that regimes other policies.

    It may be “impolitic,” but the moment when that consideration dictates what facts one is willing to acknowledge is the moment when politics becomes a game.

    Given the general tone of your piece, it seems that you are not arguing about electoral strategy–it sounds more like a moral judgement.

    10
  65. Fortunato says:

    The theme for CPAC 2020, their giant banner proclamation, is:
    America vs. Socialism

    The 2019 theme was: “What Makes America Great”

    I’m predicting that within the next 2 years the theme for CPAC will contain even fewer syllables.
    In fact, I predict that by 2022 the theme will devolve to a mere grunt.
    A grunt accompanied of course by the proper, post 2020, head adornment. Gone will be the white hoods of old, the tricorn caps, the dangling TEA bags, and the red MAGA hats. In their place will a letter Q, ‘fashioned out of twigs from the Tree of Liberty itself’. The Q will be affixed to their heads via modified, ear to ear, ammo belt with the Deep State villain of your choose printed on each round of ammo.

    3
  66. Kurtz says:

    The question is how to harness human nature.

    Please define.

    Capitalism has done this better than any other system. But its not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The rest are just dismal, and the playground of fools.

    How?

    Also, define Capitalism.

    3
  67. Jay L Gischer says:

    @R.Dave: That line is deservedly laughed at. And yet, my parents lived for two years on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, and they really could see Russia from their house. On a good day of course. I have slides my father took.

    Incidently, growing up in WA in the 30’s, Dad was a Wobbly for a while. He told me Communism sounded real good. Then he took a job in the engine room of a freighter that went to Vladivostok. Communism didn’t seem so great to him after that visit.

    3
  68. MarkedMan says:

    @wr: Your sarcasm is noted and is my fault for not making it clear that I don’t think Bernie’s communist leanings are the bloodthirsty variety. Perhaps in his early twenties Bernie wanted to put the capitalists up against the wall but today I think his fixation is that state control of significant industries is desirable. There are even intelligent arguments for this but what I fear is that Bernie listened to a few people in his twenties, formed some radical opinions, and has learned nothing new in the past fifty years. Bernie, in his head, is a party of one. And Bernie is wrong about many things and has zero chance of evolving

    5
  69. Kurtz says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Of course, the State of Alaska does this, too. Would you describe them as Communist?

    This.

    And even then, Sanders isn’t a communist. He isn’t even a pure socialist. Some have argued that he isn’t even a democratic socialist, but a social democrat.

    Only in America can a bunch of relatively highly-informed people interchange words that have clear theoretical differences and have been implemented differently through time.

    2
  70. Kurtz says:

    @Guarneri:

    Seriously, Drew. Prove that you actually know what you’re talking about–justify your claims.

    Failure to do so will prove what pretty much all of us already suspect about you–you’re a hit and run troll who loves to talk shit, but can’t form an argument on his own.

    2
  71. Kurtz says:

    @Guarneri:

    Exactly. You can’t and you know it.

    Hate to break it to you pal, I had debate scholarship to ya know, a University.

    It should be fairly simple to answer the questions I asked. Some of which, I would probably agree with.

    The only people who type “snicker” like that and use scare quotes to dodge basic questions are frauds.

    If a free market truly allows the cream to rise, it should be simple for you to justify your financial success by making a basic argument. You’ve made none. Perhaps you’re just curdled.

    Again, I will extend an invitation to buy you a meal or coffee in person. But you won’t, because you’re a coward.

    6
  72. An Interested Party says:

    Again, I will extend an invitation to buy you a meal or coffee in person.

    Oh there’s no way that you could ever travel in the rarified circles that he does…

    3
  73. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Somebody else has probably already noted this, but I find it kinds funny that neither Bloomberg nor Sanders are actually Democrats.

    4
  74. wr says:

    @MarkedMan: “Your sarcasm is noted and is my fault for not making it clear”

    As I should have realized. I tend to respond to the message itself and often neglect the identity of the sender…

    1
  75. MarkedMan says:

    @wr: I’ve often wondered – if people could really convey what they meant completely and totally, such that no one was in doubt of the message and intent, would we have more wars or fewer?

    2
  76. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I find it kinds funny that neither Bloomberg nor Sanders are actually Democrats.

    Nor was Trump actually an R. Isn’t there some guy around here, Dr. somebody, who keeps saying parties don’t have much control anymore.

    1
  77. wr says:

    @MarkedMan: That is a fascinating question. I wonder if Kathy has a science fiction story that explores it…

  78. just nutha says:

    @Kurtz: I think you’re missing the bigger picture:
    Comment 1–time 6:15, content: good tone, fairly lengthy argument of plausible quality and worthy of discussion.
    Comment 2–time: 8:21, content: snarky, short, insult-based, and without observable content.
    He’s sundowning. It’s as clear as if he was saying “hamberders” and “covfefe.”

    1
  79. Kurtz says:

    @just nutha:

    I’ll look for that. For some reason, I never got the impression that he is elderly.

  80. de stijl says:

    You all are looking for things to be disagreeable about.

    You don’t have too.