Even among Subhumanist ideologies, Marxism has the most blood on its hands. What led otherwise decent people to devote themselves to this tyrannical worldview?
It is easy for those of us who grew up during the Cold War to imagine that the impulse to reshape society by force and compel its members to follow a top-down, rationalist plan imposed by intellectuals was born with Karl Marx and died when the Berlin Wall fell. Our own experience of the radical violence that collectivism commits against human nature will always be connected with historical communism, which really did begin in the West in 1917 and largely ended there in 1989. (This leaves aside, of course, hellish holdouts like North Korea and Cuba, and the ideologically impure tyranny that is China.) Historical communism was simply the most successful example of this abstract rage for order.
There are ugly antecedents in ancient tyrannies of aspects of modern totalitarianism – for instance, the governing class of the militarized autocracy of Sparta sacrificed any trace of privacy or liberty – the better to wield power over a conquered race of helots – and the Mongols committed genocides that would do a modern dictator proud. But we need not review the long, grim history of unjust societies that failed to respect what we now call human rights.
What proved uniquely powerful in the twentieth century was the merger of absolute, unaccountable power and utopian idealism. In Tsarist Russia, a creaky autocracy used blunt instruments to fitfully suppress dissent at universities or to repress its resident Jews; but this use of force was employed in defense of a real, deeply imperfect, and largely uninspiring regime. The thuggery of the Cossacks was meant to keep the Romanovs in power, not to effect a fundamental transformation in human nature and usher in a secular messianic age. The very fact that the reactionaries’ promises were so modest profoundly limited their appeal to intellectuals, and shrank the pool of talent on which the regime could draw. It is also harder for educated people to justify escalations of violence and disruption wielded in the name of stability and continuity than comparable excesses conducted in the service of an “ideal.” Intellectuals throughout the twentieth century have reflected this unconscious double standard, judging the crimes of monarchs and churchmen by a stern criterion of humanism, while cutting enormous slack to (or actively helping to obfuscate) the much greater violence committed in the name of “progress,” “revolution,” or “the people.” To give just one truly egregious example: that heroic witness to the Gulag, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, saw his reputation tarnished almost irretrievably by some ambiguous remarks he made that (some said) favored a restored Russian monarchy in place of communism. At the very same universities where Solzhenitsyn was being flayed for this, thinkers held up for emulation included unrepentant Stalinists like Sartre and Western Maoists who defended the Cultural Revolution while it was underway, such as Julia Kristeva and Michel Foucault. Thinkers who would rightly be repelled by the brutalities of a simple, self-serving dictator such as Francisco Franco saw their vision fog over when it came to the prisons of Fidel Castro or the murders ordered by Che Guevara. For a bitterly ironic testament to the credulity of intellectuals when it comes to assessing the crimes committed along the road to utopia, see Paul Kengor’s massively documented study Dupes, and Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims.
We don’t bring up this double standard to score political points against credulous leftists, but rather to examine what lies beneath it. The Enlightenment thinkers did a yeoman’s job of exposing the brutality and will to power that can hide behind, or infiltrate and corrupt, religious zeal. Outside of Putin’s Russia, where a church long battered by the state looks now for some recompense and support, there are few places where Christians would ever envision employing coercive power to impose distinctly religious tenets on society. Even at its high-water mark in the 1980s, the Christian Right in America sought only to restore moral norms that were shared by many non-believers and could be supported by secular, natural law arguments – norms such as respect for the life of the unborn and a traditional definition of marriage. There is no constituency anywhere in the West, outside of radical mosques, for state-imposed religion. And yet the discussion of church and state is conducted in liberal circles as if the Inquisition were camped out in church basements, tightening its racks and prepping the stakes at which it plans to burn the witches.
But the will to power never sleeps. The urge to dominate one’s fellow man and reshape him like clay to match some mental ideal is a strong one, especially for intellectuals. Frederic Bastiat pointed to this impulse in Classical thinkers, especially Plato. It is probably true that the rise of Christianity, with its tantalizing hints of a “New Jerusalem” on earth, encouraged the tendency of frustrated, put-upon men to imagine a perfected world, to be achieved through the force of arms. Millenarian movements that emerged throughout the Middle Ages and erupted with enormous force in the Reformation bear witness to the recurrent, addictive attractions of Utopia. The cruel attempts at social engineering undertaken by French revolutionaries prove that religious faith need not play a part in any such schemes; indeed, the loss of faith serves only to remove the last few scruples once imposed by Christian morality on the violent pursuit of perfection. One might even observe that without the belief in the afterlife, and its promise of all tears wiped away and original justice restored, secularized utopias are more prone to frenzied, desperate efforts to force their success in this, the only go-round that any of us will get.
It requires an imaginative effort to reach back behind the rusted, blood-spattered hulk that Marxism became wherever it was put into practice and see how for millions of people it was a real and vital faith – for which they were willing to work for decades secretly or openly organizing, to conspire in backrooms, to outwit the secret police of hostile regimes, to betray their countries as spies, to kill for and to die for as terrorists. To understand all is not to forgive all, but it does play a vital role in defusing and redirecting such dangerous zeal. It is worthwhile for today’s social reformers to make the effort of empathy with these political soldiers by delving into some of the greatest works that chronicle how utopian collectivism reshapes the human soul. This week will consider just one.
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