Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
To mark the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution The New York Times has been running a series called “Red Century.” In the spirit of its Pulitzer-Prize winning Moscow correspondent and uber fellow-traveler in the thirties, Walter Duranty, the articles in the main are an exercise in rehabilitation rather than historical evaluation. Given communism’s historically unprecedented and copiously documented record of slaughter, torture, mass imprisonment, brutal occupation, and utter failure to achieve its workers’ paradise of justice and equality, the question why the Times would attempt to mitigate the evil of a totalitarian ideology that led to 100 million dead cries out for an answer.
The first place to look for an explanation is the rise of scientism in the increasingly secularized 19th century. The success of legitimate science in understanding the material world, and turning that knowledge into practical use by creating life-improving technologies, fostered the illusion that human nature and behavior could be similarly understood and improved by the same methods. As Isaiah Berlin described this Enlightenment optimism,
The success of physics seemed to give reason for optimism: once appropriate social laws were discovered, rational organization would take the place of blind improvisation . . . The rational reorganization of society would put an end to spiritual and intellectual confusion, the reign of prejudice and superstition, blind obedience to unexamined dogmas, and the stupidities and cruelties of the oppressive regimes which such intellectual darkness bred and promoted.
Marxist theory was the child of this belief, which also created psychology, economics, sociology, and all the other “human sciences.” As Friedrich Engels said at Marx’s funeral, “Just as Darwin had discovered the law of development of organic nature, so did Marx discover the laws of human history.” And once those “laws” were understood, “technicians of the soul,” as Stalin put it, could create a better world of equality and social justice––if they had the political power to reorganize society and eliminate those who stood in the way.
Communism, then, was taken not as a political philosophy, but as a scientific discovery that only the irrational, the evil, or those blinded by bourgeois “false consciousness” would reject. Like science, communism was about progress, optimism for the future, and the liberation of humans from social and political bondage by improving the economic and social conditions of human life. It had “an inherent optimism for the future,” as one Times article gushed. This notion that humans can be shaped and improved by rational technique still remains a dominant sensibility in the West, which explains the continuing hold of leftist ideology. From Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan “Forward,” a traditional leftist motto, to the fads of “behavioral science” like “implicit bias,” our world is still enthralled to this superstition that “human sciences” can improve life and transcend the historical disorder and evil our ancestors attributed to a flawed and tragic human nature.
Of course, this optimism is predicated on a category error. Humans, each a unique individual endowed with a mind and free will, lie beyond the “complexity horizon,” and so cannot be reduced to mere matter determined by the laws of physics or economic development, as Marx believed. Communism fails because it must diminish this human complexity so that people can be shoe-horned into the theory. It is reductive and simplistic, and necessarily dehumanizing. And dehumanization has ever been the precursor to mass murder and totalitarian tyranny. In the case of communism, its followers’ fanatical certainty that their beliefs were the fruit of objective “science” and the vehicle of universal human improvement, made it easier to ignore their own destructive passions and flaws, particularly their lust for power and domination; and to remove “by any means necessary” the stiff-necked opponents of humanity’s glorious future––the “eggs” that must be broken to make the communist “omelet,” as Walter Duranty reported in the Times in 1933.
But as the history of communism has shown, its road to utopia runs over mountains of corpses.
The second cultural transformation that has kept a failed and murderous ideology alive is the radical secularism of the last two centuries. The decline in faith created a vacuum of disbelief intolerable to human beings. Substitutes had to be found to explain existence and human nature, provide a meaningful narrative that identifies the good and the evil, and describe the destiny awaiting those who accepted the new revelation. Political religions, whether fascism, “blood and soil” nationalism, or communism, filled the spiritual emptiness of a secularizing age. But communism was more attractive and powerful than fascism, for it was the bedfellow of scientism, the other pseudo-religion of modernity that promised salvation, only in this world rather than the mythic “heaven” of oppressive and irrational religious belief.
The similarities between communism and Christianity are numerous, as historian Michael Burleigh pointed out: “consciousness” is the soul, which when enlightened brings salvation; “capitalists” are sinners, “comrades” are the faithful, the “counter-revolutionary” is the devil, the “proletariat” is the chosen people; the “new man” is the born-again Christian, the “classless society” is paradise, and the “proletariat revolution” is the Last Judgement. The God who was once the power behind the providential order of salvation history, is replaced by the new god “History,” which inexorably unfolds according to the Marxist libretto, until history ends in the “worker’s paradise.” Finally, communism promoted the elitist superiority, found also in believers in “human sciences,” that comes from possessing the real meaning of events and behavior, a gnosis lacking in the dullard bourgeois and irrational people of faith.
The religious power of communism is apparent from the memoirs of ex-communists who wrote about their experience in the classic The God That Failed. French novelist André Gide said of becoming a communist, “My conversion is like a faith,” and the Soviet Union seems “to point to salvation.” Arthur Koestler, whose novel Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, told the truth about the Show Trials that fellow-travelers denied were even happening, explicitly linked secularization to communism. He wrote that he “converted” because he “lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.” Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, Koestler writes, “The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull, the whole universe falls into pattern,” now there is “an answer to every question,” and “nothing henceforth can disturb the convert’s inner peace and serenity.”
The intensity of this conversion in part explains the legions of Westerners who refused to credit the concrete evidence of communist tyranny that began under Lenin. In 1908, Lenin threatened “real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country,” and fulfilled that threat a few years after the revolution in the “merciless war,” as he put it, against the Kulaks, the more prosperous peasants. When someone protested, Lenin answered, “Do you think we can be victors without the most severe revolutionary terror?” The horrors of Stalin were just expansions of Lenin’s brutal practices already well documented before Stalin came into power. As French historian François Furet has written, “Those who wanted to know, could have known. The problem was that few people really wanted to.” Only a cult-like blind faith can explain such a resistance to facts, one obvious in the comment of Europe’s most famous Marxist, Georg Lukács, who said, “Even if every empirical prediction of Marxism were invalidated, he would still hold Marxism to be true.”
The patent failure of Marx’s theoretical “predictions,” the proven record of mass murder and imprisonment, the pollution of social and family life by an infrastructure of surveillance and lies, the 1939 pact with Hitler that laid bare the true aims of an amoral gangster regime––none has been able to shake the faith of Western communists and fellow-travelers, who today still practice such willful blindness, whether it’s Bernie Sanders honeymooning in the old Soviet Union, Sean Penn shilling for a brutal thug in Venezuela, or Barack Obama cavorting with the Castro brothers in Cuba.
Today this affection does not seem to have the religious intensity of the early communist converts. But the persistence of communist apologetics has turned such unseemly admiration for the greatest killer in history into a mark of status and fashion for the caviar communist, the parlor pink, and the radical chic. These “useful idiots” 2.0 exist because admiration for communism has burrowed deep into high culture, popular culture, and the universities. So it is no surprise that large numbers of millennials prefer socialism––communism’s half-way house––to capitalism, and one-third think George W. Bush killed more people than Stalin did. Obviously, the thrill of being “subversive,” sheer historical ignorance, and moral flabbiness also account for this mysterious attraction to an ideology of murder and tyranny on the part of those who fancy themselves sophisticated intellectuals.
One hundred years after communism burst onto the world stage, it has survived the collapse of its most lethal state sponsor, the Soviet Union, and in modified form lives on in totalitarian regimes like China, and in political parties across Europe. The series in the Times reminds us that the discredited theories and allure of freedom’s greatest enemy must still be attacked and ridiculed.