Economics, History, Politics

A Hundred Years of Communism

We must give the Bolsheviks their due. Their success in gaining power was astonishing. A ragtag gang of activists and intellectuals, they seized control of Russia in October, 1917, and defended their rule in a vicious, bloody civil war. No one can deny the force of their conviction, or the scale of their courage, or the keenness of their talents.

Bolshevik forces marching on the Red Square, 1917

But wielding power was a different matter. Revolutionaries dream that crops will grow out of their fire but in most cases it leaves scarred and arid earth instead. Collectivisation, with its monstrous violence and inefficiency, left millions dead in Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus. Paranoia and persecution, all too evident in Lenin’s “cleansing” of “harmful insects” — landowners, dissidents and priests the Bolsheviks interned, starved, tortured and killed — reached its absurd apotheosis in Stalin’s purges.

Stalin killed so many people in the Great Purge that it is remarkable that anyone was left to do the killing. Former comrades, artists and intellectuals, military officers, clergymen, dissidents, outcasts and normal Russian men and women were slaughtered in a tidal wave of blood. What is striking is not just who Stalin killed but who he spared. While hundreds of thousands of innocents were massacred, Lavrentiy Beria, who was not just a bloody killer but a known rapist, received generous promotion.

Partial view of a plaque with photos of victims of the Great Purge who were shot in the Butovo firing range near Moscow. The photos were taken after the arrest of each victim.

Having carved up Eastern Europe with Adolf Hitler, and oppressed its beleaguered inhabitants with such atrocities as the Katyn massacre, where 22,000 men from the Polish officer corps and intelligensia were shot in cold blood, Stalin was himself subjected to invasion. The Red Army fought with startling courage and conviction to prevail, but as the West looked on they became embarrassed. A storm of rape and murder followed the Soviets, carried out by callous and vengeful soldiers. The Nazis in Eastern Europe were replaced with cruel and subservient Stalinist officials. Bierut in Poland, Hoxha in Albania, Rákosi in Hungary and Gottwald in Czechoslovakia kept their people mired in poverty and persecution.

Skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

The Soviets inspired others. Mao took power in China and launched a sweeping campaign of modernisation that left millions of expendable victims starved or killed. Juche arose in North Korea, wrapping itself around the country in a chokehold that has persisted to the present day. Pol Pot butchered almost a quarter of Cambodians. Mariam mass-murdered in Ethiopia. Perhaps the most successful of the communist states was Cuba, where, at least, there was not large-scale killing or famine.

As the years dragged on, and Marxists alternately identified with and then disassociated themselves from regimes which took power and promptly used that power to wicked and foolish ends, their search for an impressive Marxist state became a kind of force. The great red hope of the 21st Century was Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez gained popular support and some economic success. Any achievements were undone as the economy shrank, inflation sky-rocketed and violent crime left tens of thousands of people dead. Now, a statue of Chavez has been pulled to the ground as Venezualans, sick of queuing for hours to pay thousands of bolívares for bread and toilet paper, have marched in the streets.

It would be simplistic to blame all of these events on ideology. We live in an imperfect world and those imperfections have been unequally distributed. No conceivable government of Russia, or China, or Venezuela would have left no citizens impoverished or oppressed. Nonetheless, a hundred years of communism has presented us with an intimidating record of catastrophe, in a moral, political, and economic sense. Time and again, ambition has exceeded potential. Time and again, coercion has encouraged conflict. Time and again, violence has perpetuated itself. Time and again, absolute power has hardened into tyranny.

These disasters were concealed, excused and exacerbated by Western apologists and traitors. Walter Duranty of the New York Times lied to America about the scale of the Soviet famine. Intellectuals from George Bernard Shaw to Jean Paul Sartre to Eric Hobsbawm rationalised atrocities. Spies in British and American institutions betrayed military and intelligence secrets. As Europe reeled from the horrors of world war, and as the West endured the austerity of the depression, the impulse towards radicalism was understandable. But as the reality of communism was exposed even dull-minded apologists ran out of excuses.

A recent article in the New York Times offers a nostalgic account of growing up as a communist. Its author implies that the reality of Stalinism was made clear by Kruschev in 1956. But two decades earlier, Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge had exposed widespread starvation in the Soviet Union. The show trials had been reported across America and Europe. The Madden Committee had revealed the truth of Katyn. Orwell had published Animal Farm, and Koestler Darkness at Noon. By 1956, ignorance was abominable.

As well as exposing the truth of communist regimes, writers were unravelling communist ideology. As early as 1920 Bertrand Russell was concerned about the utopianism and vindictiveness of Bolshevik thought. By the 1980s, Leszek Kołakowski’s magisterial analysis of Marxist irrationalism, Main Currents of Marxism, had made communist ideology indefensible in all but its most watered down or futurist forms.

Now, outright communists have become rare beasts. Some of them are academics, like the charmless Drexel University Assistant Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, who was passingly infamous for advocating “white genocide” in a tongue-in-cheek tweet last year. (He followed this up by promoting a photograph of degenerate left-wing activists brandishing their middle fingers in front of Washington’s Victims of Communism Memorial). Others are propping up Britain’s Labour Party, though even there they are qualified and evasive. The success of Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélenchon shows that there is a future for the redistributionist left, but all signs point towards that future being socially democratic and not communist.

Marxists grew less interested in their native working classes as communism failed in Russia and China and failed to materialise in Europe and the US. They began to focus on culture and internationalism. The term “cultural Marxism” is unhelpful and demagogic — suggesting that Marx had more to do with it than he did and wrongly implying conspiratorial intent — but it remains true that radical progressivism took hold in Western academic and cultural institutions as conservatives and liberals looked out for communists.

Capitalist states, meanwhile, have had significant achievements. Western Europe and the U.S. have remained prosperous. Japan and South Korea recovered from their post-war devastation to build thriving, innovative economies. India, for all its dysfunction, has become a superpower with a space programme. Communist states have profited from concessions to capitalism. China liberalised its markets after the death of Mao and is one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world.

Still, a hundred years after the Russian revolution, Westerners should not feel complacent. For one thing, anti-communism has its own record of failure; considerably less substantial than that of its opponents but daunting nonetheless. There was the disastrous Vietnam War, and the bombing of Cambodia that inadvertently enabled Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. There was the support of genocidal anti-communist regimes in Guatemala and Indonesia. There was the lamentable short-sighted backing of jihadists, who, having beaten the Soviets, founded the Taliban.

More importantly, Westerners should not feel complacent because, while the Soviet Union died a graceless death, we know liberal capitalism is ageing as well. “End of history” optimism died almost as soon it was born. We live in an age of financial insecurity, environmental devastation, demographic chaos, jihadist violence and popular discontent. Some of our problems will be resolved by technological and managerial innovation but as Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in The Ingenuity Gap, it would be reckless to put one’s faith in this.

Beyond this, we face an odd kind of existential crisis. While anti-communism was all well and good, it is not enough to just be “against” things. One must also stand for something. In an age of materialism, deconstruction and the rise of solipsistic individualism, Westerners have been divided on their animating principles of citizenship and cultural meaning.

In an interview after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Kołakowski, the great Polish philosopher, might have been expected to sound optimistic, he was bleak. There was no liberal triumphalism. “The need to belong to a tribe…is as strong as ever,” he declared, “Secularization hasn’t eradicated religious needs”. Kołakowski was concerned about the “disappearance of the sacred”, by which he meant “religious heritage or historical tradition”:

The only way to ensure the endurance of civilization is to ensure that there are always people who think of the price paid for every step of what we call “progress.” The order of the sacred is also a sensitivity to evil—the only system of reference that allows us to contemplate that price and forces us to ask whether it is exorbitant.

The values whose vigor is so vital to culture cannot survive without being rooted in the realm of the sacred.

As we reach a hundred years since the October Revolution we should think back to a time when the Tsar governed Russia, and the Kaiser ruled in Germany, and the British Empire was alive and well. An awful lot can change in a hundred years and an awful lot will change in the years ahead. We have to prepare for the changes to come, and know what we value, as well as what we oppose.