Is communism making a comeback? On its face, the question seems more than a little absurd. The Berlin Wall came down over 24 years ago. We are more than 22 years removed from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
All that remains are the Stalinist museum pieces of North Korea and Cuba, the former an isolated country known mainly for its absurd dictator and starving population, the latter a beautiful island stuck in a 1950s time warp due to backwards economic and social policies.
Even China, the one major power still ruled by a Communist Party, is so far removed from the strict economic teachings of Marx and Engels as to nearly constitute some other political system entirely (albeit one that is still tyrannical).
What Jimmy Carter called an “inordinate fear of communism” today requires a degress of obsessiveness that combines Joe McCarthy with Jenny McCarthy. Surely the American body politic has been vaccinated to prevent anything like that.
Yet there does seem to be a growing tendency to not take communism as seriously as Nazism, to treat it as a historical curiosity rather than assign the discredited dogma to its rightful place among the totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth century.
Rolling Stone published the economically illiterate musings of one Jesse A. Meyerson, who featured the “full communism” hashtag in his Twitter bio. (It contained sage observations like “as much as unemployment blows, so do jobs.”) Meyerson denied that his preferred economic reforms had ever really been tried, despite some of them being road-tested in the Soviet constitution, and suggested his critics were more responsible for things like global warming than he was for the indefensible human rights record of communist regimes.
Late last year, BuzzFeed posted not one but two cutesy items about Cuba that almost seem designed to whitewash the government’s crimes. The first says more about the U.S. embargo of Cuba (an ineffectual anachronism I oppose) than the nature of the government itself, allowing that ordinary people “just don’t have the money” in a country that is “still pretty darn socialist” while also positing that “the basic safety net of the government” has made Cuba different and “less dangerous” than other impoverished Latin American countries.
The second one, a slideshow, starts off promisingly enough by acknowledging, “Cuba has a repressive government, disastrous economic policies and was ruled by Fidel Castro—and now his brother Raul — for decades.” The piece ends with an update that says, “As noted by some readers, these are interviews with admirers of Cuba, none of whom discussed the country’s much maligned human rights record, which you can read about more here and here.”
In between, readers are treated to a series of images that is part tourism brochure, part Gus Hall propaganda show.
More recently, when Pete Seeger died he was hailed not just as a folk music legend but a political visionary. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof praised him as someone whose “folk music backed the civil-rights movement and stood up to Congress.” President Obama celebrated Seeger as one who “believed deeply in the power of song” but also “in the power of community.”
There was no mention of the fact that Seeger long defended Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, first criticizing him publicly 40 years after the mass murderer’s death. Seeger opposed U.S. entry into World War II during the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact and continued to compare subsequent Soviet rulers to nonviolent figures like civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The New York Times, a newspaper that won a Pulitzer prize when its reporter Walter Duranty covered up Stalin’s crimes, in 2007 dismissed this lingering debate, “If anything, the interest in Mr. Seeger’s views on the Soviet Union shows the durability of cold war ideological debates.”
This myopia persists in some circles today, as evidenced by certain reports coming out of Russia during the Olympics. “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments,” enthused an NBC opening video. “But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures.”
There was also a justly condemned CNN report “At home with ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin.” He was a “notorious dictatorial leader,” yes, but he also “helped create much that is modern Sochi, the host of the 2014 Winter Games.” We are treated to tales of the “cinema room where Stalin used to view his favorite Charlie Chaplin movies” but no stories of the 20 million people murdered by his regime, atop another 20 million killed in war (considered by some to be a conservative estimate).
Adolf Hitler would not—and emphatically should not—receive such fawning treatment. Why do Stalin and other communist murderers? How can videos of Fidel Castro’s island prison sit alongside quizzes about which “Friends” character the reader is? To quote Lennon rather than Lenin, “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t going make it with anyone anyhow.”
“Everything old is new again,” goes the old adage, especially true in an era of hipsters and ironic detachment. But there is a big difference between pretending Pabst Blue Ribbon is fine wine and normalizing the crimes against humanity carried out underneath the hammer and sickle.
Even before the Berlin Wall crumbled, a not insignificant amount of American history made it sound like the worst things that happened during the Cold War were McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Roy Cohn and Red scares. A lot of the people who wrote that history were more directly affected by blacklists than forced starvation, Stalinist purges or five-year plans.
From the treatment of dissidents at home to the support for illiberal governments abroad, American anti-communists have been guilty of sins of their own. But to pretend that what Pete Seeger went through in testifying before Congress was in the same universe as the liquidation of the kulaks, to cite just one example of communist crimes, is morally grotesque.
It has also long been easy for people to compartmentalize the various aspects of communism, sealing off what they like (such as government-provided health care or free college) from the human rights abuses they dislike. From the 1930s to the 1960s, this included many activists and normal citizens who displayed decent and humane impulses on other contemporary issues, like the fight against Jim Crow. It includes some well-meaning people today.
People who would never dream of saying a nice word about Hitler because of the autobahn nevertheless praise Chinese and Soviet social experiments because they naively see communism as not inherently bigoted or discriminatory. Not only is this not always true—ask members of various minority groups in communist countries or look at the plight even of South African blacks before the local communist party decided to use the anti-apartheid cause for recruitment—it prioritizes refraining from discrimination over refraining from mass murder.
But because the bizarre and evil racial theories behind Nazism are apparent early on to all but the most obtuse, Nazism tends to repulse most people of good will living in the postwar era rather quickly. In modern times, fellow travelers of Nazism are almost always racists and anti-Semites rather than people in denial about the true meaning of Hitlerism.
By contrast, people have been attracted to communism because of the prosperity it falsely promises to share without willing anyone to be a victim of the secret police. (Though such people often remain willfully ignorant of the secret police’s existence.)
Das Kapital can be sanitized of the gulag in a way that Mein Kampf can never be scrubbed of the concentration camp. That’s what allows us to be cute about Uncle Joe and to perhaps dismiss anti-communism as a dated right-wing concern.
Nevertheless, communism should be held to the same standard as Nazism and fascism. It is no historical accident that communism’s denial of human nature has always and everywhere required a massive denial of human rights.
Jonah Goldberg observed that some grapple with America’s legacy of slavery while ignoring the Soviet Union’s. (An exception is Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, famous for its denunciation of Soviet communism, containing a less-noticed passage describing slavery and racism as “a legacy of evil with which” America “must deal.)
“Watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics,” Goldberg wrote, “you’d have no idea that from the Moscow metro system to, literally, the roads to Sochi, the Soviet Union—the supposed epitome of modernity and ‘scientific socialism’—was built on a mountain of broken lives and unremembered corpses.”
The victims of communism had names, even if they were lost in the vast numbers. It is time to remember, and indeed never forget.