September 24, 2016

Joseph Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz

Source: Wikimedia Commona

I was reminded by this interview of the one I had with Joe Slovo in South Africa. It was just after the African National Congress had been unbanned. Mr. Slovo, who was affable personally, was an unreconstructed communist who still thought that the Soviet Union had been the hope of the world (as a Brooklyn communist once put it to me as we stood in the long line to see Lenin’s mummy). Mr. Slovo must have been aware, since I wrote for The Spectator, that I would be hostile to his communism, and so it was game of him to agree to an interview with me. But I was astonished by how ill-prepared he was to answer the most obvious questions. After all, he had been a politician for years, all his life indeed, whereas I was only a journalist in my spare time.

He was still a believer in the full panoply of bad Leninist ideas; he dreamed of a fully socialist South Africa. He had visited the Soviet Union so many times that it was almost a second home to him. “€œDidn”€™t you notice anything about it?”€ I asked him. What I meant was the grayness, the lack of freedom, the shortage of ordinary consumer goods such as fruit and vegetables. To do him justice, he knew what I meant, but his answer astonished me.

What I had to remember, he said, was that he had been an honored guest of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He had therefore not personally seen much of the everyday reality of the Soviet Union. In essence, he was like George Bernard Shaw, who, during a visit to the Soviet Union at a time of famine, denied that there was famine because he had been amply fed, even feasted. Perhaps it was the very grayness, the lack of freedom, and the shortage of consumer goods (at least, for those not in the Central Committee) that attracted Mr. Slovo to the Soviet Union in the first place. After all, there is nothing more delicious than abundance enjoyed at a time of general shortage.

I was amazed at his reply: I had expected him to be able to fend off my question with ease by means of some sophisticated rationalization, the exposure of whose untruth and bad faith would have taken more time than I had at my disposal. But no, he was just not very clever.

I have retained a certain naïveté. I still expect the great ones of the earth”€”Nobel Prize winners and others”€”to exhibit an extraordinary capacity, completely out of the orbit of us mediocrities.


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