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Sympathy For The Devil

Michael Totten's much-mocked recounting of his night out with Christopher Hitchens and their Iraq friends contained an interesting demonstration of Hitchens' vestigial leftwingery, in opposition to the application of the death penalty:

“Yes,” I said. “That’s the difference between Saddam and Ted Bundy. Bundy didn’t have fanatical killers running around loose in the streets cutting off heads in his name. He was harmless there in his cage. Saddam Hussein isn’t harmless as long as he’s breathing.”

“When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia,” Hitchens said, “they murdered the czar, his wife, and his children so there would be no going back. Are you sure that’s what you want?"
The execution of the Romanovs has long played a large and, I think, wrongheaded role in normative criticism of Lenin and the Soviet regime. Richard Pipes The Russian Revolution dedicates one chapter to "The Murder of The Imperial Family" along with one chapter each to "The Red Terror," "War Communism," and "Russia At War" as though these were all subjects of comparable significance. The Rolling Stones, famously, seem to feel that the assertion "I stuck around st. petersburg / When I saw it was a time for a change / Killed the czar and his ministers / Anastasia screamed in vain" is comparable to "I rode a tank / Held a general’s rank / When the blitzkrieg raged / And the bodies stank" or the execution of Christ.

Stepping back, though, consider the situation. Lenin believed that the Russian Revolution would lead to global revolution, mass prosperity ("the overabundance of goods), and a vast increase in human freedom ("the withering away of the state"). On that assumption, the death of the Czar and his family is a small price to pay for success. They say you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, but this is more like breaking a few eggs in order to make an unlimited supply of really, really tasty omelettes. From the standpoint of Bolshevik conviction, it would have been criminally stupid not to be as fastidious as possible and kill even the Czar's daughter in order to guarantee the revolution's victory.

The problem, as Pipes has written elsewhere, "is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter." The problem is that Bolshevik rule was an absolute disaster, not that the Czar's family was killed.

The real lesson Hitchens ought to be taking away from this isn't about the death penalty, it's about the danger of utopian dreaming and overestimation of threats. If you make your hypothetical omelette tasty enough (democracy everywhere! freedom and equality for all!) or the dangers of failure sufficiently grave (terrorists blowing up cities!) then you wind up eliminating all constraints on the quantity of eggs you're willing to break. This is, I think, something's that's fairly widely understood. Most people involved in politics are not wild-eyed utopians sure that if you just take these three drastic steps all problems will be solved. But one common thread between Hitchens' former Trotskyism and his current neoconservatism (and, of course, he's not the only one to have made that particular journey) is a failure to appreciate the point.

February 12, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Feb 12, 2005 7:16:13 PM


Your block quote runs on un-closed after Hitchens' line.

Posted by: Vance Maverick | Feb 12, 2005 5:30:13 PM

For the life of me, I can't see how killing the imperial family is worse than killing any Russian family, of which they killed plenty. The debate is myopic.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 12, 2005 5:32:08 PM

In scale and audacity there is I suppose an analogy to be made between Hitchens's trotskyism and his neoconservativism, but of course the difference is that in the real world people actually seem to *want* bourgeois democracy (which is what the neocons are peddling) and not communism (of any variety.) Can't the left oppose the neoconservatives on grounds a little less cynical than "Arabs aren't capable of democracy"? The paleo-cons and libertarians certainly have a point about interventions abroad tending to reduce liberties at home, and when you throw in the cost in lives and dollars it makes for a relatively compelling argument. Not enough to derail the neoconservative train, but enough to make ya think...As far as I can tell, most liberal internationalist Democrats are still imperalists. They just liked it better when American empire had the cover of the UN and EU. At least the neocons are honest about their imperial agenda...

Posted by: Scoop Democrat | Feb 12, 2005 5:47:58 PM

For the life of me, I can't see how killing the imperial family is worse than killing any Russian family, of which they killed plenty.

Okay, sure, killing *any* family is equally bad. So if al-Qaeda knocks off Bush, Laura, Jenna & Barbara, then you're not going to be all that concerned, because it's no worse than anyone they killed on 9/11?

Some families are more equal than others.

The murder of the Romanovs, from Nicholas on down to the youngest princesses and little hemophiliac Alexis, shocked Europe, because there was a vestigial moral sense that one didn't do such things. Collateral damage might be unavoidable in wartime, but wasn't to be encouraged (or sought out so as to cease being collateral). As for the coldblooded murder of children, to say nothing of Nicholas & Alexandra, without a trial, that was still shocking.

And today the Tottens of the world have come over to Lenin's side. It would have been "stupid" not to kill Nicholas. So much for morality.

Of course, the point on its own grounds remains false. The Bolsheviks couldn't kill *every* Romanov, so there would still be a legitimate heir somewhere. No: this was a gratuitous, evil crime, in a century so dripping with innocent blood that 100 years later, the Tottens of the world no longer blink an eye.

Posted by: Anderson | Feb 12, 2005 5:50:11 PM

Scoop Democrat:
"At least the neocons are honest about their imperial agenda..."
Honest? you mean the freedom imperialism or the liberty imperialism?

Posted by: ladder | Feb 12, 2005 6:13:37 PM

Well, you get a little historical distance and people tend to forget that the Czar himself had ordered hundreds (more probably thousands) of murders. Apparently you can lead people to Battleship Potemkin, but you can't make them think...

Posted by: serial catowner | Feb 12, 2005 6:16:43 PM

"Honest? you mean the freedom imperialism or the liberty imperialism?"

Its both imperialism and democratization. That's what distinguishes American empire and hegemony from previous empires and hegemony. British empire may have been about "civilizing" the natives but it was never particularly about bringing democracy to what we now call the developing world. What America has found is that countries in the developing world are in many cases more amenable to our political, economic, and cultural dominance if they are democratic.

Posted by: Scoop Democrat | Feb 12, 2005 6:20:39 PM

Matt, something changed on you site to make it almost all black when viewed from Safari on a Mac. You can only see the first story and the header. Looked ok from IE. You might want to check it out.

Posted by: Mark | Feb 12, 2005 6:28:54 PM

Somewhere in the main blogosphere this week is another discussion of "The Grand Inquisitor" and the torturing of the amall child. Somewhere.

Torture a small child to stop 9/11? I don't know. I liked your last paragraph, this is where your pragmatism or consequentialism runs into trouble, and the idea of keeping ends modest to limit the menu of means is kinda neat.

Deontologists can just say it is always wrong to kill children, no matter what the greater good that will result. We don't mean it. I supported this war, am kinda haunted by Furies, and may never feel clean again. Neo-cons don't have these wussy guilt-trips.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 12, 2005 6:35:48 PM

Bob McManus is perhaps thinking of one of Katherine's comments to Sebastian Holclaw's post on extraordinary rendition at Obsidian Wings.

Also, it now seems that the gee-I-would've-shot-Anastasia-too-if-I-were-a-Bolshevik is actually Yglesias. (Failed to pick up Vance Maverick's hint; fighting off a real-world virus today.) All that proves is "if I were evil, I would do evil things." Doesn't suggest they aren't evil.

Posted by: Anderson | Feb 12, 2005 6:42:15 PM

Yep the Bolsheviks acted like they were royalty or something! Killing Kings was up to other Kings!

Posted by: Rob | Feb 12, 2005 6:58:45 PM

The last point is right - if you read Hitchens' pre-war places, you can sense an underlying feeling that toppling Saddam was going wipe away all the excuses and usher in a glorious new era of despot-displacing: the culmination of his life's work.

Hitch is today cashing checks from the same WSJ Op-Ed page that's trying to whitewash Pinochet, and is now seeing the Pottery Barn Rule from the pundit side.

What's really sad about this is that Hitchens is held in far greater contempt by leftists (at least the ones I read) than Sullivan, who made worse predictions with far greater malice in mind pre-war and was proven even more catastrophically wrong than Hitchens was. Why this is escapes me. Is it because Sully wised up to a tiny degree?

Posted by: Adam M | Feb 12, 2005 6:59:07 PM

Is Yglesias really arguing that if only the Russian Revolution had actually led to Utopia, then the czar's children would have deserved to be killed?
Their ages: 23, 21, 19, 17, 14. I thought leftists were against the execution of juveniles? Apparently executing a juvenile murderer is bad, but killing a juvenile hemophiliac whose only crime is to have jerk parents can be justified if the outcome is good enough.
From a musical point of view, I always preferred to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, but I have to give the Stones a great deal of respect for identifying the Russian Revolution as an evil, which stands in stark contrast to John Lennon's mooning after various left-wing despots.

Posted by: James Kabala | Feb 12, 2005 7:04:01 PM

Both Hitchens and Sullivan are like those Americans who went to live in Britain in the interwar years thinking there would be no sunset on the British empire, and desperate to be an echo chamber for the British political elite. The difference of course is that the likes of TS Eliot had far more interesting things to say. A generation from now, when America is deep in debt and a fading power perhaps they'll decide to be court jesters in Beijing or New Dehli instead.

Posted by: Hombre Secreto | Feb 12, 2005 7:10:51 PM

" then the czar's children would have deserved to be killed? "

Not that they would have deserved to die but that they should have died. Not the same thing. The point being to stop a Charles II situation from popping up 1 or 2 decades later.

"I thought leftists were against the execution of juveniles?"
Yes, it says so right there in the Book of Leftism 1:23: Thou shalt be against killing juveniles. Whether or not it's a routine criminal case or a revolution we're talking about really doesn't matter. Amen.

If you apply a deontological filter to views derived from teleological ethics, you will indeed find that there's not much coherence to be found according to the deontological view.

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Feb 12, 2005 7:39:46 PM

"If you apply a deontological filter to views derived from teleological ethics, you will indeed find that there's not much coherence to be found according to the deontological view."

I read this sentence twice and I could swear that the first time I read it it said "dentological" rather than "deontological" which had me worried for a second that if I objected to this statement I might be an anti-dentite.

Posted by: Snarkasaurus Rex | Feb 12, 2005 7:48:55 PM

"On that assumption, the death of the Czar and his family is a small price to pay for success."
The fact that the assumption (that the death of the Romanovs would lead to a 'land of plenty' socialist paradise in Russia) is utterly wacky shouldn't play a role?
The Son of Sam alleged murdered people because dogs were telling him to do so. Perhaps if they were Trotskyist dogs, the murders would have been forgivable?

Posted by: Rick | Feb 12, 2005 7:58:30 PM

Neocons are NOT interested in democratization, if by democratization, you mean increasing the degree to which governments are accountable to their citizens. Witness Wolfowitz's reaction to the Turkish government's decision to obey the demands of 90+% of their people, refusing to allow the U.S. to use Turkey as a northern launching pad for the Iraq war: he said he was dissapointed in the Turkish military for ALLOWING that decision to be made. This is clearly not someone who defines "democracy" in conventional terms. Rather, what the neocons are after is governments around the world who support U.S. policy. Since the United States is the singular fountainhead of freedom in the world, a government is "democratic" to the degree that it supports the U.S., regardless of the wishes of its citizens.

Posted by: Matt_C | Feb 12, 2005 9:31:21 PM

Anastasia screamed in vain

That's the line? I never knew.

And forgive me if it's too on-the-nose, but there's Stalin's supposed remark "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Reading that as a description of human responses, rather than as a moral judgement, there's certainly something to it.

Posted by: DonBoy | Feb 12, 2005 10:34:13 PM

Geez, Matt, a man's gotta have a dream of some perfect world, or how's he gonna make it through this one, filled as it is with David Irvings, Sid Blumenthals, and other such opportunities for, uhm, imperfection?

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Feb 12, 2005 10:58:32 PM

"Much-mocked" ? What did I miss ?

Posted by: ron | Feb 12, 2005 11:15:47 PM

People were stupid to take Hitler at his word in the 1920s. Think of all the mayhem justified by such an act of belief in what was obviously impossible. When the French and Germans collided over the Rhineland there were many thousands of needless deaths and a properly elected German leader was overthrown.

Is that really the kind of world we want to live in?

That is the kind of world you get from believing every idle threat or the ravings of obvious political madmen.

Posted by: M. Simon | Feb 13, 2005 2:41:28 AM

Well if it stops the flow of drugs what is wrong with torturing sick people and stealing their property?

In fact if it stops the flow of drugs what is wrong with plain old fashioned torture, murder, and extortion?

Conservatism shows its compassion by doing such deeds. Liberalism shows its compassion by ignoring them.

You see there is no advantage in attacking the drug war. Left and right are about equally complicit. Which is just how it should be. Why speak truth to power if there is no political advantage? No reason. No reason at all.

Posted by: M. Simon | Feb 13, 2005 2:57:04 AM

It seems to me problematic to say that Nicholas ordered any murders. He certainly ordered people to their deaths, and his actions resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. But murder? Can you give an example? Ordering police to shoot at unruly crowds is awful, obviously, but it seems to me that it cheapens the idea of murder.

At any rate, the murder of the Romanovs, especially the children, seems to be indefensible by any standard. The life or death of these people would not determine the fate of the Bolshevik Revolution - if it was to fail, there were strong men enough to take over in the absence of the Imperial Family (as well as numerous hapless Grand Dukes - Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, the next in line, actually proclaimed himself Emperor in the 20s). After all, the French revolutionaries judicial murders of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and their causing of the death by neglect of Louis XVII, did not prevent the restoration of the monarchy.

It should be added that the girls could not even inherit the throne, so they were not a threat in this sense, either.

This is not to whitewash Nicholas, who was a truly, truly awful monarch. But by 1918, the Imperial Family simply was not a genuine threat to anybody, and their deaths had as much to do with the Bolshevik desire to make a statement and show publicly their break with the past as it did with any threat the Romanovs may have been to them.

Of course, Stalin's crimes (and Lenin's other crimes, for that matter) were quantitatively worse. But deliberate, cold-blooded murder, without any kind of judicial process, of a defenseless family (whatever the crimes and mistakes perpetrated by the father and mother) strikes me as pretty morally repugnant no matter how you look at it.

Posted by: John | Feb 13, 2005 2:59:52 AM

I think another place where Matt gets it wrong here is in assuming Lenin actually wanted a workers' paradise of some sort.

Seems to me that power was his ultimate goal. His ideology guided his pursuit of power, but his desire for power would have been the same whether Marx had ever existed or not. He just would have chosen another ideology. Hitler and Mussolini were once Socialists themselves until figuring out that fascism promised an easier road to absolute rule by themselves.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Feb 13, 2005 5:02:06 AM

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