Hitler defeated Lenin, Chiang defeated Mao

By Lorenzo

It is a commonplace that the victors write history. But which victors? The victors that are claimed to write history are normally taken to be those who win wars and other conflicts. But just because one side wins a war or conflict, it does not follow that its ideas triumph in the longer term.

Consider contemporary China. Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek in their epic decades-long conflict, driving him and his Kuomintang forces to exile in Taiwan. Now, look at contemporary China–is it closer to Mao’s vision or Chiang’s?

Obviously Chiang’s. As a wit observed, the story of post-1979 politics in both “Chinas” (the People’s Republic and Taiwan) is the Communist Party of China trying to become the Kuomintang and the Kuomintang trying to become the Democratic Progressive Party. Mao may have won the military struggle, but Chiang’s vision won the wider social war. It turns out that social reality is not entirely plastic to our visions, and Chiang’s proved to be more human and achievable than Mao’s. That matters, in the end.

Lenin‘s successor Stalin, with huge help from the Anglo-Americans (who provided trucks, rolling stock, canned food, and munitions crucial to the Red Army while their bombing campaign diverted the Luftwaffe and many thousands of tank-killer 88mm guns from the Eastern Front), defeated Hitler on the Eastern Front. But consider contemporary postmodern identity progressivism (PIP), with its concern for authenticity, identity, emotion over reason, environment, obsessions with the Jewish state, dismissive treatment of workers and belief that a sufficiently interventionist state does not have to own firms to control them: whose obsessions does it better reflect, Hitler’s or Lenin’s?

Obviously Hitler’s (though also obviously not with his identity rankings). As post-Enlightenment progressivism turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted (which is why it is so easy for more openly Counter-Enlightenment politics to adopt the political tropes of PIPism), this is less shocking than it appears.

For the triumph of Chiang’s vision over Mao’s, and Hitler’s obsessions over Lenin’s, is, in a deep sense, the same triumph (or, more accurately, the same failure). In both cases, the Radical Enlightenment (the belief that humans and society could be utterly transformed by applied social reason) turned out to be triumphant in direct military struggle and a failure thereafter.

Winning the war …  

The Radical Enlightenment instanced by Leninism and Maoism was triumphant in direct military struggle because it both motivated and mobilised. It provided a vision, a goal, of such transcendent power that it could motivate enormous, focused efforts. Moreover, efforts that could not only motivate intensely but mobilise broadly. Since every aspect of society was to be transformed, every aspect of society was up for being contested and mobilised without inhibitions, moral or conceptual. No aspect of society, or social group, was beyond contesting or mobilising for a future that seemed to epitomise modernity. Mao could count on much more motivated allies and fellow-travellers than Chiang, including broader sympathy within the US State Department, for example–and not from communists or crypto-communists but from liberal/progressive folk repelled by the corrupt inefficiencies of Chiang’s regime.

During the struggle on the Eastern Front, Hitler threw away potential allies on race-theory grounds while diverting resources to genocide. Stalin was even more willing to engaged in megacidal slaughter than Hitler, but was much better at sequencing slaughter than Hitler. Mobilising for the current struggle always came first.

Within Weimar Germany, interwar politics demonstrated that class theory was worse at alliance building than race theory. As a direct consequence, once in power being ruled by Hitler in peacetime was generally far safer than being ruled by Stalin: a typical German was much less threatened by Hitler than a typical Russian was by Stalin.

Internationally, it was the other way around–class theory was better at alliance building than race theory. While Nazism and Stalinism were even on the motivation stakes, Stalinism was better at allies and breadth of mobilisation.

… but failing human and social management 

Hence, Stalinism won (with help from its allies). But won the war, not history for, again, social reality is not entirely plastic to our visions. As political economist Mancur Olson pointed out, you can make Stalinism work (in the sense of providing a high proportion of social resources for the purposes of the ruler)–provided you are willing to engage in regular purges to break up the resource diverting and suppressing “self-help” (i.e. patronage and corruption) networks that command-and-control systems naturally generate. But as the people purges need to threaten (those in the power apparat) in order to work are precisely the people with the greatest ability to end them, they are not likely to be a permanent feature of any society. (Well, there is a way around that–have a hereditary ruler.) Once the purges end, then the self-servicing networks build up and the (now unchecked) pathologies of command-and-control begin to spread until the system is buried by them.

                        Shanghai, China.

Unless you do as Deng Xiaoping did, and allow other social mechanisms (specifically those of markets and private property) to operate across wider and wider range of social space. You are still left with attempting to manage command-and-control mechanisms, but across a narrower span of social action supported by an expanding economy rather than a stagnating, or even contracting, one.

Hitler’s obsessions, on the other hand, are much less directly destructive of economic activity while equally representing a rejection of the Sceptical Enlightenment (the belief that human nature and social dynamics–such as the problems of knowledge and incentives–provide a permanent constraints on what applied reason can achieve). The rebooted identity obsessions of the Counter-Enlightenment provide motivating purposes and grounds for social mobilisation compatible (mostly) with market mechanisms. In the face of the collapse of command economics as a plausible social model, they were a natural place for salvationist politics (i.e. politics that provides a substitute for religion in imparting a sense of meaning, importance and path to a transcendent future) to move to, and so it has.

It turns out, being good at military success is not enough; being compatible with longer run social success counts more. In the failure of the Radical Enlightenment because people and society are not as plastic to our visions as it claims–indeed, requires–we can see why Chiang’s vision defeated Mao’s and Hitler’s obsessions overtook Lenin’s.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. JohnX
    Posted January 15, 2017 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    But consider contemporary [right wing American politics], with its concern for authenticity [is Barack Obama a Kenyan, as Donald Trump and half GOP voters would have us believe, or a real Merikan?], identity [Didn’t Trump ask for a judge to be expelled from a case involving him because the judge had a Mexican surname?], emotion over reason [you mean like this article?], environment [GOP Nixon established the EPA], obsessions with the Jewish state [you mean like the GOP congressmen who want the US embassy relocated to Jersualem?] , dismissive treatment of workers [you’re kidding] and belief that a sufficiently interventionist state does not have to own firms to control them [Do you mean Trump hectoring companies that want to offshore their workforce?]: whose obsessions does it better reflect, Hitler’s or Lenin’s? [Good grief, you really do prove the point that bloggers could really benefit from some editorial guidance].

  2. Lad Litter
    Posted February 11, 2017 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    How was the Q Society dinner last night?

  3. JohnX
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo (Michael Warby), you have gone awfully quiet. Why haven’t you commented on Trump’s extreme form of identity politics, which now includes banning nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. You might also like to comment on the rather convenient exclusions including Saudi Arabia, a country with which Trump has business ties and which, unlike the countries subject to his travel ban, has supplied the USA with terrorists.

  4. Lad Litter
    Posted February 18, 2017 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Wait, what?! This is Michael Warby here? The Hanoi Jane guy from Media Watch back in c.1999? Come on, that wasn’t really his fault though. He couldn’t help but write complete bullshit. The Age was culpable for stupidly assuming someone from the IPA might not. And then publishing it for heaven’s sake

  5. JohnX
    Posted February 18, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Yup, it’s Michael Warby. I didn’t know about the seedy history, so thanks for letting me know. So let’s see if I’ve missed anything; IPA stooge, tame house homosexual, plagiarist (re Jane Fonda), smear merchant (re Jane Fonda and Bob Ellis) and inveterate racist who breathlessly trots out Rushton-Jensen’s long discredited work on the inferiority of the negroid peoples and accomplished acrobat who twists and contorts like Nadia Comăneci in order to deny the import of the cultural artefacts of slavery and the existence of racism.

    I think I might be ill.

  6. kvd
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jx and Litter – why not take a dump in the kitchen while you’re at it? Alternatively, you could maybe present a thoughtful analysis of your differences of opinion?

    Guess not; that would involve honesty and critical thinking.

  7. Lad Litter
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    You’re probably a bit too scatological for this blog of reasoned discussion KVD, what with your right-out-of-nowhere entreaty for commenters to “take a dump in the kitchen”. That’s just weird. I think Lorenzo should ban you for being disgusting.

  8. JohnX
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    A jolly good idea, lad litter, a ban for kvd would be most appropriate.

  9. JohnX
    Posted March 8, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of the Chinese, Trump made noises about recognising Taiwan before he was elected Prez but within weeks of taking office he pulled down his pants, applied lubricant, bent over and guided Xi Jinping’s shaft into his anus, saying “Oh no Mr Chinese Leader, I will do anything you say, Oh Oh that feels good!”.

    The North Korean commie bastards are now firing rockets at will into Japanese waters and what has Trump done? Yup, he has pulled his pants down, applied massive lashings of lubricant and waits for Dear Leader Kim Jong-un to start humping him. What a fucking useless wimp.

    Trump is just a show pony and con man who would be flipping burgers if his daddy wasn’t rich.

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