Extremism in Defense of Liberty is No Vice?
Reflecting on Ends and Means: Thinking About Communism and Anti-Communism, Trumpism and Its Alternatives
The ends justify the means. If you strongly believe that abortion is murder, or that capitalism is the root cause of an impending global annihilation, or that white supremacy and patriarchy are tightly woven into the social fabric, or that open borders are an existential danger to national and personal security, it makes sense to oppose profound injustice “by any means necessary.” Resolute action is imperative, moderation problematic. Or as Barry Goldwater, in his acceptance speech as the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate put it concerning his core convictions: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
These words were delivered just as I was coming of political age. I remember that they disturbed all the adults around me, who were fearful of Goldwater’s extremism. But I also remember wondering whether Goldwater had a point, even as I found no appeal in Goldwater’s partisan positions: against the advances of the New Deal, against civil rights legislation, and all too ready to turn the cold war into a hot one, with nuclear arms on the table. Sometimes, certainly, extreme measures, including violence, are necessary, I thought, but I also perceived dangers. I’ve struggled with this ever since.
The means constitute the ends . When I was eighteen and subject to the draft, a few years after Goldwater’s failed candidacy during the Vietnam War, I also wanted to believe an alternative, more subtle, but no less cogent insight.
I wanted to be a pacifist. The argument that the use of violence, even against a violent and unjust wrong, only yields more violence was appealing. I came across the idea through reading the work of A.J, Muste, the leading pacifist anti-cold war activist of those times I found his arguments persuasive in the abstract: violent means yields violent ends. But I also knew that when it came to specifics of the then recent past, that some problems couldn’t be addressed through non-violent means. I couldn’t erase from my mind the tattoos on the arms of people I met in the Brooklyn of grandparents. I knew that I would willingly serve in an army to oppose Nazis. I knew I opposed the Vietnam War, but not war as such. Muste broadly convinced me that pacifism was a noble first principle, but I also knew that it was a principle that for me was not absolute.
I have since come to the conclusion that I am a pragmatic pacifist. I am aware that some problems must be opposed using extreme measures, including violence, but I also know that some problems, even the gravest of injustices, and some principles, even the most ambitious, require moderation. Sometimes, I would even dare to say most of the time, nonviolent means are most pragmatically effective in reaching just ends, with the means constituting the ends along the way.
The tension between the ends justifying the means, on the one hand, and the promise and perils of the means constituting the ends, on the other, vividly appeared in my friendship with Michael Kaufman, the deceased New York Times reporter and Adam Michnik, a major figure of the democratic opposition in Communist Poland and a leading public intellectual after the fall of Communism.
It was ironic that Michael was the Times reporter in Warsaw in the mid 80s, at the same time that Adam was Poland’s leading dissident intellectual. Their fathers shared a prison cell in the 1930s, jailed communist revolutionaries in a country that was moving toward Fascism.
My friends were very much keeping up family traditions. In the critical spirit of their fathers, they acted against their fathers’ ideas that failed. Michael was a fine reporter working around the world, confronting dictators, covering resistance movements and providing a remarkable eye-witnessed report on the re-emergence of democracy around the old Soviet bloc; Adam was one of the leading architects of and activists in the democracy movement. Michael’s work was “an insightful, moving reminder of the fundamental importance of journalism.” (The last words of his obituary in the Times.) Clearly, as recent years have underscored, this has democratic significance.
Adam, on the other hand, has been a heroic figure. He imagined the path of Solidarność before it existed, and put his body on the line, repeatedly, in pursuit of democratic ideals. After 1989, he worked steadfastly as the editor of the major independent newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, publishing a steady stream of columns offering critique and commentary as Poland forged a democratic path. And he continues working for democratic ideals now, with Poland moving in the anti-democratic direction. (I reported on this tragedy over the summer.)
The common thread of Michnik’s work is his commitment to democratic ideals, with an understanding that the way you work for these ideals is the way you realize them. Act as if you live in a free society, and you constitute freedom in your actions. This insight was his, and crucial to Solidarność and the democratic opposition during the Communist period, and it still works as a guide after the fall. I analyze this insight in depth in my book Beyond Glasnost, which was very much my report on what I learned in my work with Adam in the 1980s.
Of course, not everyone understands Michnik as his supporters and friends (such as Michael and me) do. There are some who see in his openness to compromise in the crucial year of 1989 and his willingness to work and socialize with his former jailers, evidence that he was and is soft on communism. The Stalinist past of his family is then invoked, mother, father and step-brother. The memories Michael and Adam shared of their parents is seen as damning, especially as it relates to Adam’s step-brother, Stefan.
And here in lies the tragedy of “extremism in defense of political ideal.” Stefan Michnik was a Stalinist judge, who subjected enemies of the people to revolutionary justice. He followed his father’s path and in the immediate post-war environment revealed the tragedy of violent action. In his early twenties, he condemned people to death. Belief in communism as the radical alternative to Nazism is understandable: an “extremism in defense of liberty.” (Note I understand how people made this move then, while I am bewildered how people do this now.) But violent extremist means yielded violent extremist ends. Adam Michnik’s politics, shared and admired by Michael and me, and millions of others, is a profoundly different path, contrary to many of the new authoritarians in Poland, who attempt to tar Adam with the actions of Stefan. Adam responds with a question: what kind of system asks a 20 year old to make such judgments?
When I was that age I weighed the arguments for and against the notions that in politics “the ends justify the means” versus “the means constitutes the ends.” I couldn’t easily decide the issue then, and I still can’t. Those who can are dangerous: both as leaders of political insurgencies and as defenders of the insurgencies’ achievements, and as defenders of regimes, democratic and despotic
This week, I have been thinking about ends and means, as I have been reading the news and Public Seminar. The unfolding sexual predator scandals bewilder and challenge me, as do the variety of political responses to them. And I continue to worry about how Trump and Trumpism challenge my life’s work and fundamental commitments.
I take solace in reading the posts answering the question we posed to a number of our friends and colleagues: “What have you done in the last year to respond to the upheavals in American politics?” I note that all the responses are informed by the wisdom of the means constituting the ends: a writing workshop, showing up and engaging in mutually respectful discussion about what you are thinking and doing, engaging in electoral politics, and social protests, intensifying engagement in political life, “singing the Bill of Rights,” developing survival strategies that include modes of engagement and disengagement, and linking voluntary exile (or is it self-deportation?) to France to gain perspective on the craziness at home, including developing a comparative no tolerance perspective on sexual harassment, all have ends that are beautifully enacted through their means. We may not yet live in a social and political world where all forms of sexual harassment are banished, but acting upon principle, makes it more of our reality, as Jim Neal calls for in his post.
Yet, as a consequence, through such resolute commitment to no tolerance, relatively good progressives, (or is it the relatively not so bad?), are leaving the political arena, such as Al Franken, while reprehensible sexist demagogues (with my respect for conservatives, I won’t call them that) prevail, such as Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Why is it that the good guys undermine themselves overburdened by principle, one of my friends wondered? But note conservative, liberal and leftist principles are all undermined when we ignore principle. Perhaps we can understand the conservative Christian who votes for Moore because of a deep moral conviction on the matter of abortion, but this is a devils bargain, with moral judgment undermined and becoming its opposite, a demonstration that extremism in defense of liberty leads to vice, undermining democratic capacity across the political spectrum.
Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.