Communism, Memory and ‘Forgetting’

by Andrew Stuttaford

Writing in the New York Times, Bret Stephens takes aim at the curious mix of indulgence, amnesia and ignorance that envelops the subject of Communism.

How many know the name of Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s principal henchmen in the [genocidal Ukrainian] famine [of 1932/33]? What about other chapters large and small in the history of Communist horror, from the deportation of the Crimean Tatars to the depredations of Peru’s Shining Path to the Brezhnev-era psychiatric wards that were used to torture and imprison political dissidents?

Why is it that people who know all about the infamous prison on Robben Island in South Africa have never heard of the prison on Cuba’s Isle of Pines? Why is Marxism still taken seriously on college campuses and in the progressive press? Do the same people who rightly demand the removal of Confederate statues ever feel even a shiver of inner revulsion at hipsters in Lenin or Mao T-shirts?

The article produced generated a snide response from Jeet Heer, a senior editor of the New Republic, who tweeted this:

Guys, guys, I have some news. Stalin was bad. Did I just blow your mind?

It was a striking, dishonest and telling response, not least in the way that it focused on Stalin in a way that Stephens did not. Nevertheless the full range of this “bad” (to borrow Heer’s trivializing adjective) man’s crimes are indeed often forgotten, minimized or explained away in a manner that would rightly never be acceptable in the case of Hitler, Stalin’s accomplice for a while and a mirror image of sorts.

But Heer’s reference to Stalin served another purpose. In many respects the sheer monstrosity of the Soviet dictator has allowed many on the left to portray the triumph of Stalinism as a terrible wrong turning that crushed the (supposedly) bright promise of 1917. Trotsky, no mean mass murderer himself, gave the book in which he described Stalin’s Soviet Union the title The Revolution Betrayed, the encapsulation of a myth that has stuck. Trotsky may have been a liar, but he was a brilliant one.

In reality, Stalin largely took the revolution further down the path that Lenin, yet another butcher, had already set.

“Compared to Lenin, Stalin was a pussycat,” recalled Molotov, a man who knew both well.

In any event (something that Heer appears to have overlooked), Bret Stephens, a charitable sort, went to some lengths not to accuse today’s ‘progressives’ of rallying behind communism’s despots:

No, they are not true-believing Communists. No, they are not unaware of the toll of the Great Leap Forward or the Killing Fields. No, they are not plotting to undermine democracy.

I wonder how true that last sentence really is, at least so far as some progressives are concerned. No, they may not want to ‘undermine’ democracy on lines set out in the vintage revolutionary script, but looking at today’s campuses, training grounds of the future elite, it’s very hard indeed not to suspect that a number of them want, at the very least, to hollow it out.

But back to Stephens:

But they will insist that there is an essential difference between Nazism and Communism — between race-hatred and class-hatred; Buchenwald and the gulag — that morally favors the latter. They will attempt to dissociate Communist theory from practice in an effort to acquit the former. They will balance acknowledgment of the repression and mass murder of Communism with references to its “real advances and achievements.

. . . Progressive intelligentsia “is moralist against one half of the world, but accords to the revolutionary movement an indulgence that is realist in the extreme,” the French scholar Raymond Aron wrote in “The Opium of the Intellectuals” in 1955. “How many intellectuals have come to the revolutionary party via the path of moral indignation, only to connive ultimately at terror and autocracy?”


And a good number have continued to do so since 1955, cheering on China’s Cultural Revolution, Castro’s Cuba, ‘Bolivarian’ Venezuela and all the rest.


. . . It’s a bitter fact that the most astonishing strategic victory by the West in the last century turns out to be the one whose lessons we’ve never seriously bothered to teach, much less to learn. An ideology that at one point enslaved and immiserated roughly a third of the world collapsed without a fight and was exposed for all to see. Yet we still have trouble condemning it as we do equivalent evils. And we treat its sympathizers as romantics and idealists, rather than as the fools, fanatics or cynics they really were and are.


Stephens concludes that, a century after the Russian revolution, what Churchill referred as the ‘bacillus’ of revolution “isn’t eradicated, and our immunity to it is still in doubt.”

It will never be eradicated. It’s often said that communism is doomed to fail because it runs up against the realities of human nature. Economically speaking, that may be true. But economics isn’t everything. Communism is, in reality, little more than a twist on ancient millenarian ideas so enduring that there must be something about them that does indeed appeal to human nature, or, at least aspects of it, whether spiritual, a simple craving for revenge or both.

And for intellectuals, it offers something with more tangible benefits, the chance to create a society where they will be the priesthood, where they will be in charge.

That’s a temptation that, for some, is evidently very hard to resist.

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