Even among Subhumanist ideologies, Marxism has the most blood on its hands. What led otherwise decent people to devote themselves to this tyrannical worldview?
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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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Witness (1952), by Whittaker Chambers, is a spiritual memoir by the former spy for Stalinist Russia who later testified against his fellow communists, exposing a ring that had infiltrated the U.S. government before World War II. It potently shows the shape of the void in the soul that utopian faith can flood in to fill. Raised a conventional Christian in a family scarred by economic failure and his parents’ loveless marriage, Chambers benefited from the impressive social mobility offered in America, leaving his bankrupt parents to join the best and brightest at Columbia University. It was there that he encountered among his teachers and fellow students the blasé dismissal of Christian claims that even today exerts such a strong pressure on poorly formed young believers-come-conformists. Unable to defend his patchy, inherited faith, but still possessed of a youthful idealism, Chambers searched for an alternative worldview that would comprehensively answer the riddle of human suffering, with hope of redress. Chambers found in Marxism a redemptive myth that explained the persistence of injustice in “scientific” terms and promised that the laws of history themselves dictated that injustice must end – in a bloody but brief revolution, which would be followed by a classless and then a stateless utopia that answered every human aspiration for freedom and brotherhood. He saw in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union a church that was making this gospel real, struggling fiercely against the forces of organized selfishness and exploitation to accelerate the final consummation of human progress. In other words, Marxism was the crowning glory of the entire Enlightenment project, aimed at dismantling archaic and superstitious hierarchies to make way for human greatness and happiness. Compared to that shining vision, what were the property rights of a few “greedy” Ukrainian farmers, or the free speech claims of “parasitical” Russian priests?
And so Chambers followed the logic of his new beliefs into the secret service of the American Communist Party, which recruited him as an agent of espionage against the “bourgeois” government of the United States. In the service of the Party, Chambers was ordered to commit many crimes; when his wife, Esther, became pregnant, the diktat came down that the Party would be best served by an abortion. And that proved to be a turning point. Chambers wrote:
"One day, early in 1933, my wife told me she believed she had conceived. No man can hear from his wife, especially for the first time, that she is carrying his child, without a physical jolt of joy and pride. I felt it. But so sunk were we in that life that it was only a passing joy, and was succeeded by a merely momentary sadness that we would not have the child. We discussed the matter, and my wife said that she must go at once for a physical check and to arrange for the abortion.
"When my wife came back … she was quiet and noncommittal. The doctor had said there was a child. My wife went about preparing supper. “What else did she say?” I asked. “She said that I am in good physical shape to have a baby.” My wife went on silently working. Very slowly, the truth dawned on me. “Do you mean,” I asked, “that you want to have the child?”
"My wife came over to me, took my hands and burst into tears. “Dear heart,” she said in a pleading voice, “we couldn’t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart.” A wild joy swept me. Reason – the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the 20th century – crumbled at the touch of the child. Both of us simply wanted a child. If the points on the long course of my break with Communism could be retraced, that is probably one of them – not at the level of the conscious mind, but at the level of unconscious life."
After his daughter, Ellen, was born, as Chambers was feeding her, he found himself contemplating the baroque design of her ear, and finding it a mystery that eluded explanation. His fiercely held subhumanist faith taught that this, his little child, was purely disposable, and that her ear was the product of blind and meaningless chance. Could he really still believe that while holding his child? And if not, what then – what of the children who even then were starving because the Party in Russia had taken their parents’ land or shipped their family to gulag camps? This moment of epiphany worked inside Chambers’s heart like sand in an oyster. He was already on the road home.