From the Gulag to the Killing Fields – notes on Totalitarianism

A few musings on totalitarianism, brought on by a work-related visit to Vietnam. I have juxtaposed this with a recent re-reading of Orwell’s “1984”. I read a lot of books at once, mind, and I am also ploughing my way through a collection called “From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States”. It has been put together by an academic called Paul Hollander, himself a victim of the political violence of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. It makes uncomfortable reading for me, much less for anyone with remotely left-wing sensibilities. We tend to look at Russia and China as the worst offenders in terms of the sheer volume and quantity of communist political oppression and violence, and this book tends to support that view. But reading books these upsetting personal stories, other places take the record for sheer horror and human tragedy (Cambodia and Vietnam). For the ill-treatment of political prisoners, I’d look at Cuba, where there was a peculiar and toxic mixture of Latin machismo and the malevolent foolishness of Marxism.

It never fails to be a pleasant surprise to me that books like this collection are in print in the UK at all. It is not beyond the bounds of darkest fantasy that a time will come for the UK when having a copy of such a book could put someone at risk of being sent to prison.

It’s always good to pick up a few points from Orwell. His character “Bernstein” who ostensibly writes the “book within the book” plot device allowing Orwell to lecture us on totalitarianism, says that the rise of machines has, “by producing wealth which is sometimes impossible not to distribute”, led to an increase in average living standards. Our standard of living has indeed improved from the early 20th century (earlier really) until now, and should continue to improve all this century. This is not politics, nor economics, but technology – the rise of machines. Orwell notes that “an all-round increase in wealth threatens a hierarchical society” and “A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance”. Amen. This truth lies at the very heart of “1984”, and at the heart of opposition to technology for it’s own sake. Opposition to “machines taking over men’s jobs” is at heart a desire for order and hierarchy, a vote for the established order, an endorsement of the status quo. And I believe the status quo is almost invariably worth upsetting. Technology and machines, of themselves, create wealth and hence threaten the status quo in hierarchical societies.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

I got this book on the basis that it was about Central Asia. A legitimate assumption, perhaps, given it’s title. But no, it is not about “the Silk Roads” as such.

The expression “Silk Road” comes not from antiquity but from a 19th century German historian. Just thought I’d throw that into the pot, so to speak.

Peter Frankopan’s book is a new history of the world, starting in deep classical antiquity, and ending right now in the second decade of the 21st century.

Persia and other middle eastern “silk road” countries are mentioned early on. The importance of the nations and states through which what we now call the “Silk Road” becomes apparent, though Persia -Iran- seems to be considered paramount.

The book makes a detour, in order to gain a wider perspective, into a history of Western Europe and the adventures of Europeans in the New World.

In my view, the latter part of the book is tilted subtly against the west and against America. This is never shrill, but it is there nonetheless. In this, it only really reflects the zeitgeist. Me, I like the West, I like America, and I like what they stand for.

Overall, an excellent piece of work, in the “grand sweep of history” style which does appeal to me.

Collectivism and Christianity

I’m no collectivist and have always struggled with what I see as rampant collectivism in the charismatic church, particularly the house-church movement and New Frontiers.

We’re asked to make an offering publicly, i.e put money in a box at the front of church where everyone can see us. It is a right, good and noble offering the church is taking up. But why would I give money publicly unless I wanted there to be a public witness to the fact that I was doing so? Why would I be concerned what anyone else within the household of faith sees or thinks about my giving? Does it matter? I think it does. Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:3 that when we give, we should give in secret, not letting our right hand know what our left hand is doing.

So to me, giving money publicly – and being seen to do so – is a big no-no. That’s not Christianity – that’s collectivism.

But being against collectivism puts me on the back foot both in church and the wider world. People say I am selfish and care only about myself, merely because I argue that the individual is generally – by no means always – more important than the community.

“Collectivism can refer to any ideal, social, or political thought that puts emphasis on interdependence and the group above individuality or identity. Collectivists seek to be part of a greater whole–a larger scheme that is greater than the individual parts of that whole.”

And that is right and good – as Christians we are indeed part of a greater whole, and we should and do place emphasis on interdependence and the group. That is what small groups are about. But…

Individuals matter. Communities are made up of individuals, just as tables and chairs are made up of individual molecules. The properties of the materials used to make tables and chairs comes directly from the qualities of those molecules. And unless I am very much mistaken, we stand before God as individuals, and we were and are redeemed by Jesus Christ as individuals. There will be no communities judged at the Great White Throne – just individuals.

The importance of the individual over the community, over the collective, is what separates modern western cultures (i.e those arising since the Reformation) from the feudal societies they replaced, and what makes them more open to democracy, more open to freedom, stronger and more flexible that the Confucian cultures of the East (like China) and the Collectivist culture of Russia. All these cultures have strengths – but I believe the West is stronger, because of the importance of the individual.