Jack Reed, the American communist who was buried in the Kremlin, is the author of the extremely exciting book Ten Days that Shook the World. It’s about the Bolshevik Revolution which is witnessed first hand, and he was a huge fan who turned out to be one of many of its victims. But his book is also about any time of astonishing upheaval, times like our own when history seems to turn on a dime in ways no one expected. A quasi-free society became a fully planned one, under the control of an elite who claimed the mantle of science.
We are living through something similar. The results have been similarly disappointing. We tried to “flatten the curve” to preserve hospital capacity, but this is just a fancy way of saying “prolong the pain.” It was a form of rationing access to medical services, seemingly necessary given the scoliosis of this highly regulated industrial sector. But the political class and their modelers only considered one kind of pain. Other forms of pain are already here in the form of mass unemployment, waves of bankruptcy, rising despair, social division and anger, a panicked political class, and a seething fury on the part of millions of people – who had long taken their right to work and associate as a given – who suddenly find themselves under house arrest.
Going through my personal financial statements for the last 30 days, I’m reminded of how this nightmare unfolded.
My last trip to the old New York was on March 12. I was with AIER’s videographer Taleed Brown. The virus was all the talk but the city hadn’t shut down yet. There were fewer cars on the road, fewer people by half walking around. The bars were full, stuffed with people even at 11:00am who had some sense that this might be their last drink. Groups of 4 and 6 were sitting around talking and trying to celebrate birthdays and pretend things were normal, as best they could.
But things weren’t normal. I was there for a 4pm television interview, and I had 5 hours to wait for it. I worried that the Amtrak would stop running before we could catch it. We would be trapped. So the minutes went by for hours. Taleed and I sat there eating and drinking but even at the Irish Pub, things were different. There were paper tablecloths where there used to be exposed wood. Our waitresses stood far away and set our drinks and food down on the table next to us. She had a look of impending doom of her face, as she confronted two possible disasters: getting sick and getting shut down.
How far along had the disease progressed at that point? The first US case of Coronavirus was reported January 20th, in Washington State. No one knows how many other cases there were already spreading through the Northeast of the US. Thousands? Millions? Many cases have no symptoms. Others feel like a minor cold. Others are taken down for a couple of days. Do you tell others and get tested every time you feel sick? No. The virus might already have been everywhere in New York when I was there.
The interview finally came and went and we rushed to the train station to get home as soon as possible. Were we carrying infection? I had no idea. There was no means to find out. Even after all this time, there still is no widespread testing outside of hospitals. If CVS did offer the test, there would be a line down the block. The fateful disaster of the CDC/FDA to botch the creation and distribution of tests is still present in our lives.
We still don’t know. Amazing.
After that day in New York, our worlds began to shut down. The following day, a national emergency was declared. Then the CDC recommended against gatherings of 50 or more people. France locked down. Borders closed. Then the unthinkable scenario unfolded: stores shut, borders shut, police-enforced stay home orders, mass unemployment, family bankruptcy, psychological depression, a nation of prisoners in our homes. Spooky doesn’t describe it. Not one person in the US imagined this was possible, and I’m speaking as a person who warned of coming quarantines on January 27.
Back then, I wrote the following:
Remember that it is not government that discovers the disease, treats the disease, keeps diseased patients from wandering around, or otherwise compels sick people to decline to escape their sick beds. Institutions do this, institutions that are part of the social order and not exogenous to it.
Individuals don’t like to get others sick. People don’t like to get sick. Given this, we have a mechanism that actually works. Society has an ability and power of its own to bring about quarantine-like results without introducing the risk that the State’s quarantine power will be used and abused for political purposes.
But the political class in the United States (unlike Sweden and South Korea) didn’t trust society. Oh, to be sure, society was trusted to adapt to the most astonishing series of mandates, burdens, and shifts in modern history. The whole of the industrial structure was massively contorted, distorted, and violently attacked. And yet the grocery stores and pharmacies, plus all their suppliers, proved unbelievably adaptable, people became specialists in distancing, and millions learned about remote work and digital hangouts.
The political elites and their plans for us just assumed society was capable of this, and they were right. But if society could achieve this level of upheaval in the course of a week, how much more capable would it have been in dealing with a disease itself – and dare I suggest deal with the disease better than the politicians ever could. This is precisely why 800 serious medical professionals begged and pleaded to stop the lockdown before it happened.
The trouble I had from the beginning with this whole central plan to flatten the curve – we cannot know if it is happening much less why, simply because we have neither data nor a clear test of cause and effect – is that central plans have never worked. They are hugely costly in ways that models cannot predict. Meanwhile, the medical professionals have discovered features of this disease that are distinct and should have informed policy decisions. Even after the shutdown, some politicians began to doubt. “If you rethought that or had time to analyze that public health strategy,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “I don’t know that you would say quarantine everyone. I don’t even know that that was the best public health policy.”
By then it was too late.
But let’s return to Jack Reed and his dreams for a communist world, starting with Russia. I recently re-watched the film Reds. After all these years, the movie holds up as one of the most intellectually interesting and visually powerful portrayals of lost history that I’ve seen.
The movie stars Warren Beatty playing John Reed, while Diane Keaton plays his girlfriend and eventual wife, Louise Bryant. It includes some of the best romantic fight scenes I’ve ever seen, not least because they paralleled the actual off-screen lives of Beatty and Keaton. The portrayals of figures like Max Eastman, Eugene O’Neill, and Emma Goldman are very convincing.
In terms of culture and politics, the film provides a richer education than you can get from 50 books on the topic of the Progressive Era, the Great War, the Russian Revolution, and the heady brew of interwoven cultural issues like women’s suffrage, birth control, abortion, free love, and the beginnings of the organized socialist movement in the United States.
I’ve never been sympathetic to the Bolsheviks as versus the old regime in Russia, but the scenes here from the revolution are completely inspired and touch the heart of anyone who agrees with Jefferson on the positive need for revolution from time to time. The portrayals of both Lenin and Trotsky seem authentic, and thrillingly so.
That sense you get that you are watching the real thing is enhanced by the extended interviews with people who actually knew both Reed and Bryant. They all have strong opinions. They are wise. They are insightful. We hear from communists and anticommunists, socialites and politicians, working-class philosophers and credentialed academics. It is a beautiful mix.
From a political perspective, the film offers a devastating turnaround judgment on the results of revolution. Emma Goldman tries to talk some sense into Reed in the years following, and explains that millions have died from starvation, that nothing works right, that the vanguard of the proletariat has become a centralized police state. Reed won’t listen. He explains back to her that the socialist revolution requires terror, murder, and firing squads.
Here is the exchange with Maureen Stapleton playing Emma Goldman:
Goldman: “Jack, we have to face it. The dream that we had is dying. If Bolshevism means the peasants taking the land, the workers taking the factories, then Russia’s one place where there is no Bolshevism.”
Reed: “Ya know, I can argue with cops. I can fight with generals. I can’t deal with a bureaucrat.”
Goldman: “You think Zinoviev is nothing worse than a bureaucrat. The Soviets have no local autonomy. The central state has all the power. All the power is in the hands of a few men and they are destroying the revolution. They are destroying any hope of real communism in Russia. They are putting people like me in jail. My understanding of revolution is not a continual extermination of political dissenters. And I want no part of it. Every single newspaper has been shut down or taken over by the Party. Anyone even vaguely suspected of being a counter-revolutionary can be taken out and shot without a trial. Where does it end? Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of defense against counter-revolution? The dream may be dying in Russia, but I’m not. It may take some time, but I’m getting out.”
Reed: “You sound like you are a little confused about the revolution in action, EG. Up ’till now you’ve only dealt with it in theory. What did you think this thing was going to be? A revolution by consensus where we all sat down and agreed over a cup of coffee?”
Goldman: “Nothing works! Four million people died last year. Not from fighting war, they died from starvation and typhus in a militaristic police state that suppresses freedom and human rights — where nothing works!”
Reed: “They died because of the French, British and American blockade that cut off all food and medical supplies. And, counter-revolutionaries have sabotaged the factories and the railroads and telephones. And the people, the poor, ignorant, superstitious, illiterate people are trying to run things themselves just like you always said they should, but they don’t know how to run them yet. Did you honestly think things were going to work right away? Did you honestly expect social transformation was going to be anything other than a murderous process? It’s a war EG, and we got to fight it like we fight a war: with discipline, with terror, with firing squads. Or we just give it up.”
Goldman: “Those four million didn’t die fighting a war. They died from a system that cannot work.”
Reed: “It’s just the beginning EG. It’s not happening like we thought it would. It’s not happening the way we wanted it to, but it is happening. If you walk out on it now, what does your whole life mean?”
And here we come to understand something of the strange mind of the dedicated communist ideologue, so dogmatic in his adherence to a creed that nothing can shake his faith, not even the deaths of millions and millions of people. His doubts about the revolution and the Communist Party crystallize only when one of his speeches is edited. So he can turn a blind eye to holocaust, but a violation of his freedom to speak becomes an intolerable act. Some moral compass!
The entire story makes an interesting parallel with our own times. The barren predictive models on how many would die from the coronavirus felt like science but their range of predictions made them useless in practice. It would be like a weather prediction that said: either your house will completely flood or there will be a light drizzle, depending on whether you do the following Kabuki dance. Still, the media howled and the politicians acted in extreme ways to protect their standing with voters (or so they believed then).
What they hadn’t considered were a number of possibilities: the models weren’t predictive, curve flattening is pain prolonging, the coronavirus doesn’t spontaneously appear just because people are in groups, nothing about staying home is going to cause the virus to get bored and go away, the costs of unemployment and bankruptcy are astonishingly high, school closings put older vulnerable people in direct contact with children who do not suffer the effects of infection, and the whole reaction was based on a presumption that human rights and the Constitution do not matter. It was brutal, irrational, medieval, and eschewed the advice of the best and most learned minds in epidemiology.
They created madness and destruction and called it health.
At the end of this, there will still be Goldmans and Reeds, people who admit errors and those who will stick by their guns, humble minds who will see that there were better ways and arrogant fools who will keep screaming that setting the world on fire was all we could do.
The Goldmans will say: millions suffered not from the virus but from the response to the virus. Meanwhile, we threw out every principle of human decency, freedom, property, and science.
The Reeds will say: It didn’t happen like we thought it would, but it happened. If you reject it now, what does your whole life mean?