It is a curious commemoration.
This year The New York Times has proudly assumed the mantle of re-considering the legacy of Communism on the hundredth anniversary of its earth-shaking revolution in Russia. In a series titled Red Century (beginning last February and continuing through November to coincide with the February and October – technically November – Revolutions of 1917), dozens of essays were written to explore Soviet Communism from its Leninist origins. Articles adorned the Times’ Opinion page with titles like What Was Lenin Thinking (subtitled: In the shape of its first leader, the Russian Revolution had a strategic genius it never found again), The Cold War and America’s Delusion of Victory, Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past (subtitled: Communism was a dead end, but we can reclaim socialism) and Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.
Clearly, the Times could not whitewash the historical reality of show trials and purges, gulags and the Holodomor. There are too many bones and graves. But they could remember Communism with an asterisk. The impression in reading these essays commemorating an ideology that killed millions is that Communism was well-intentioned, but ham-handed in its execution. The question that lingers amidst the eloquently penned words is not “How can we prevent this horror from ever happening again?,” but rather “How can we soften up, salvage and re-package the virtues neglected by Communism into a twenty-first century version of enlightened socialism?”
The answer I would offer The New York Times? You can’t.
Communism is rooted in the notion that the good of the collective is superior to the dignity of the individual. As such, the individual must live counter to his or her true nature and subordinate themselves to the will of the masses (which ultimately means, the will of society’s power holders). Enforced orthodoxy, social engineering and individual degradation are the stock-in-trade of the Communist enterprise. When the dignity of the individual is jettisoned, all nature of abuses are justified and sanctimoniously excused in that they were committed “for the good of the people”.
This was not lost on British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. As Western intellectuals journeyed to Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, they pronounced its ideology ingenious and its system unimpeachable. Muggeridge, on the other hand, explored the Soviet landscape unhindered by minders and unaffected by propaganda. This is what he saw,
The thing that impressed me, and the thing that touched off…my sense that western man was, as it were, sleep-walking into his own ruin, was the extraordinary performance of the liberal intelligentsia, who, in those days, flocked to Moscow like pilgrims to Mecca. And they were one and all utterly delighted and excited by what they saw there. Clergymen walked serenely and happily through the anti-god museums, politicians claimed that no system of society could possibly be more equitable and just, lawyers admired Soviet justice, and economists praised the Soviet economy. They all wrote articles in this sense which we resident journalists knew were completely nonsensical. It’s impossible to exaggerate to you the impression that this made on me… How could this be? How could this extraordinary credulity exist in the minds of people who were adulated by one and all as maestros of discernment and judgment? How…could you explain how people, in their own country ardent for equality, bitter opponents of capital punishment and all for more humane treatment of people in prison, supporters, in fact, of every good cause, should in the USSR prostrate themselves before a regime ruled over brutally and oppressively and arbitrarily by a privileged party oligarchy? I still ponder over the mystery of how men displaying critical intelligence in other fields could be so astonishingly deluded.
And just consider what the fashionable British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm said about the Communist legacy in his 1994 interview with Canadian academic Michael Ignatieff.
Michael Ignatieff: “What that comes down to is saying that had the “radiant tomorrow” [the hoped for Communist paradise] actually been created, the loss of fifteen or twenty million people might have been justified.”
Eric Hobsbawm: “Yes.”
This answer is even more jarring when one considers that 1994 is three full years after the fall of the Soviet Union and a peak moment in post-Soviet revelations about its sordid past and brutal inner workings.
That simple notion that man and woman are means to ends and not ends in and of themselves was accepted by generations of thinkers who should have known better. That human beings are not dignified and thus fit for subordination to a great utopian project on earth, even if millions would perish in its pursuit, was the crux of the Communist worldview. “Simply accept this ‘small exception’ to your innate sense of who you are as a human being,” reasoned Communist overseers and intellectual fellow-travelers, “and all will be fine.” As G.K. Chesterton once astutely observed,
Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view…A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe…[such] as that law is above right, or right is outside of reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist of mind. (italics mine)
Man as a means, not an end. If once we will grant this, the rest will be easy. That is the legacy of Communism. Notwithstanding The New York Times efforts to parse it otherwise on its hundred year anniversary, let us leave this ruthless, bloody legacy as nothing more than barbarism fueled by human arrogance. Communism is a cautionary tale. And we should pray it will never – in any of its iterations – be told as a credible philosophy again.
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