National Review’s Kevin Williamson read Dissent’s symposium “Beyond Stagnation” and did not like it. That was not surprising. This passage, on the other hand, was:
Dissent is refreshing in that it shows the occasional sign of genuine intellectual interest in the Right’s ideas and in that it has resisted the pressure to disguise its ideological commitments as Ezra Klein-style pseudo-pragmatism. Rather, it forthrightly makes the case for a command-and-control economy and a totalitarian politics. (Its editors certainly would object to this characterization.) Dissent’s contributors have not yet got their heads around the idea that it is impossible to have a government that is simultaneously totalitarian and humane; if they had, they would not be part of the Left, which remains corporately committed to the principle that an effectively unlimited public sector can be put to excellent use so long as its masters have the right sort of moral cultivation.
As the indomitable Richard Yeselson notes, this is an historically illiterate description of Dissent, which was well-known, back when these intra-left schisms were more important, for backing the social-democratic cause against strands of left-wing authoritarianism. The defenders of Stalinism—probably the only fully realized left-totalitarian movement in history (aside, perhaps, from North Korea, whose politics are far more mysterious, and which anyway has no defenders)—have never been warmly treated in its pages.
The distinction between social democrats and Stalinists is not exactly an obscure story in the history of the left. Now, not everybody is interested in that history, which is fine. But you’d think the standards would be a bit different if you made your living by penning brooding National Review essays peppered with florid, affected turns of phrase (“Still aquiver from the series of moral orgasms”; “ It is one of the great ironies of our time”; “progressives have not recovered sufficiently to think with any depth or imagination”; “The Left suffers intellectually from a retreat into moralism”; “accept capitalism on its own terms or to adopt a nakedly totalitarian approach”). The point, after all, is to signal erudition, right?
Well, maybe. Sometimes rhetoric is an effective tool in the service of thought—and sometimes it’s just rhetoric. Challenged on his unique interpretation of history, Williamson tweeted this rebuttal:
Milder expressions of totalitarianism aren’t less totalitarian; they’re just less ambitious.
— Kevin D. Williamson (@KevinNR) August 4, 2014
Actually, milder expressions of totalitarianism are less totalitarian—“totality” being key to the concept. (On this logic, actually, “milder” expressions don’t count as totalitarian at all.) “Totalitarianism” isn’t just a word for “an activist state that conservatives dislike.” If that’s your definition, then you’ll soon find yourself lumping the social democrats of Dissent (and much of modern Western Europe) with the tyrants behind agricultural collectivization and the purges. This is no academic parsing: In Spain, among other places, Stalin’s thugs kidnapped, jailed, and killed their left-wing rivals, a bloody affair that Orwell—a committed social democrat who fought with the anti-Stalinist POUM—witnessed firsthand. When Dissent was founded just 17 years later, in 1954, Stalin had been dead only one year. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” was still almost two years away. Stalinism still enjoyed prominent left-wing defenders into the 1970s. This was still a live, bloody history, and those distinctions meant something. It would be nice if ignorance were the most offensive thing about collapsing them.