At the Vanguard
Communist governments created totalitarian nightmares. But ironically, communist movements often helped advance a liberal agenda.
Near the end of his short, tormented life, F. Scott Fitzgerald reflected that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And though it’s a subject to which the great novelist apparently gave little or no thought, this might be a useful way to understand the history of communism.
One idea was widely accepted even before the end of the Cold War–and is now indisputable: From Beijing to Moscow to Prague, communists ran what were among the bloodiest, most repressive, and most undemocratic regimes in the modern world. Their regimes were intellectually sterile and habitually dishonest: states built on lies. Leninist leaders also failed to construct dynamic, prosperous economies, at least until the 1970s, when officials in a few nations, such as China and Hungary, cast off their dogma and allowed market incentives and private entrepreneurs to operate.
At the same time, millions of other communists spent all their lives in capitalist countries. Members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and its like-minded brethren around the West were badly deluded about the nature of the USSR and its copycat states. And yet many of these men and women worked with determination and skill to promote ends any modern-day American liberal would applaud: union recognition and higher wages, an end to discrimination by race and religion, protection of civil liberties, and access to good education and cultural resources for every citizen. It was an ironic fate: The only communists who furthered democratic ends were those who never succeeded in taking power.
In Comrades!, Robert Service presents a lively and detailed account of the damage that was done in the name of “building socialism.” A distinguished historian of modern Russia at Oxford, he lucidly explains how the Bolsheviks gradually imposed their will on an impoverished and often resentful populace. Lenin mixed terror with the promise of a modernized economy; Stalin added patriotic appeals and a vast, smothering bureaucracy subservient to his whims. And beginning in the summer of 1941, he had help as defense of the Motherland against Hitler’s legions kept most Soviet citizens loyal. Stalin’s polyglot disciples then spread the new order into Asia and Eastern Europe. At their zenith in the early 1970s, communists governed a third of humanity. And yet, as Service notes, “Despite all the diversity of the states committed to communism, there was an underlying similarity in purpose and practice.
Comrades! makes no original argument and contains only a smattering of new evidence. Still, it is valuable to have the whole grim, brutal record laid out in one thick volume covering everything from the downfall of Czarism to the oddball tyranny of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. To learn about the millions who starved after Mao Zedong decreed the rapid industrialization of rural China or about the 4,500 chandeliers that glittered in the palace of strongman Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania (a country where the masses lacked reliable electricity) should dispel any myths about the morality of communist rule. Service has written a textbook with a bad attitude, and his stance is fully justified by the facts.
Nevertheless, Service gives barely a glance to the demand side of communism–in particular, why it appealed to so many people who were fortunate not to live under its sway. In his recent autobiography, the historian Eric Hobsbawm recalls a fellow British communist badly wounded by a German bomb who, in what she thought were her last words, shouted, “Long live the Party, long live Stalin…” Even in Auschwitz, Hobsbawm reports, good communists kept up their party dues, “paid in the inconceivably precious currency of cigarettes.
What motivated such people? In part, they shared the élan of belonging to an international movement, one composed of comrades from every race and continent, with its headquarters in the largest nation in the world. Communists thrilled at the effectiveness of the Leninist method, which seemed to combine sharp debate with the discipline of a crusading army. Of course, they were also filled with a desire to banish the violence and misery that was the lot of most of humanity. By adhering to the Bolshevik way, one could become an engineer on the locomotive of history. To be sure, the voyage would be rough and dangerous; the train would rattle, careen, occasionally catch fire, and throw the weak and unseated onto the tracks. But the pace and direction of the trip were clear.
The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 shook this conviction for many radicals in the West–especially for the many Jews attracted to the universalist values communism seemed to enshrine. But most doubters revived their faith when Hitler invaded the USSR less than two years later. And even as the Cold War solidified the division between radical and moderate leftists, the sacrifices of communist fighters in wartime France and Italy yielded their parties millions of new voters and thousands of new members after the carnage ceased.
Few communist militants were troubled that their fealty to the Kremlin and its vassals had split the international left into warring camps. While Communist Party (CP) members lauded everything Lenin, Stalin, and then Khrushchev said or did, most of their opponents on the left drifted inevitably toward social democracy. After World War II, the latter built welfare states that remain models of how to achieve social equity within a market system, even if global competition has recently forced them to trim benefits and keep militant unions at arm’s length.
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