Magazine March 23, 2020, Issue

Back to the USSR

Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic primary debate in Charleston, S.C., February 25, 2020 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

It is in no way to disparage the child-rearing efforts of my beloved parents to note that the greatest gift they ever got me was obtained two years before I was even born. In the summer of 1968, my parents—both in their 20s, both with secure jobs, both beneficiaries of “free” health care, both graduates of top-flight Communist literacy programs—packed one bag each, left the small apartment they shared with relatives in Budapest, and boarded a train headed for Rome. They wouldn’t return to visit Hungary until 1990, by which time they were fully Americanized. 

The summer my mom and dad defected to the United States, the Soviet Union was busy crushing the aspirations of Czechoslovakian reformers by sending 600,000 Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to Prague to end a student uprising. The scene was, no doubt, familiar to anyone who’d witnessed the Soviet crushing of Hungary’s democratic aspirations in 1956 or the crushing of East Germany’s democratic aspirations in 1953. If there was one thing Commies were able to do with ruthless efficiency, it was crush dissent. 

The summer that my parents spared me a life in some soul-sucking collectivist factory—and Hungary wasn’t the worst nation in the Eastern Bloc at the time; there were no mass arrests, no gulags, just economic inertia and a tedious low-grade authoritarianism—Bernie Sanders was role-playing a Trotskyite in his class war against the Lumpenproletariat and kulaks of Burlington, Vt. 

There’s no record of the future mayor of that prosperous city ever defending the brave men and women of the Prague Spring—why would he, after all?—though he did find the time to publicly admire the Vietcong, a group responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Bernie would make apologizing for Communists a lifelong endeavor. You’ll forgive me if I take it personally.

My father, a year younger than Bernie, was born two years before the Nazi deportation of the Jews of Hungary got into full swing. His father would never return. His mother, a seamstress with a knack for staying alive, would take to Budapest’s perilous streets to welcome the Red Army as liberators. Soon enough the Soviets would teach Jews a thing or two about anti-Semitism themselves—not only on the home front, but in bankrolling the most virulent and indefatigable post-war enemies of the Jewish people. 

Bernie, who didn’t have my grandmother’s excuse to embrace Communists, never offered a word of support for the thousands of Jews trapped in the Soviet Union, not even on his voyage de noces as a 47-year-old to the CCCP. If anyone is confused about how Marxists view “organs of bourgeois reaction”—especially the ones they grew up in—Bernie’s tapping of Linda Sarsour and Ilhan Omar as campaign surrogates offers a good clue.

Anyway, by 1969, my father, trained as a chemist but unable to find work in that field, began his new life packing bags in a warehouse while my pregnant mother assembled beads for which she was paid by the bracelet. But not for long. I doubt either of them was aware that in the United States a red-diaper baby could move to New England and become a professional revolutionary, never having to really work a day in his life. And I’m positive that the prospect of such a life would have chafed their newly adopted sensibilities. 

I’ve never met anyone who has escaped Communism—not from Cuba or China or Hungary or Ethiopia—who had any interest in living on the dole. Now, perhaps not everyone is as hard-working or as lucky as my parents—and, of course, chance plays its part in everyone’s life. But when socialists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mock and dismiss the notion of Americans’ “lifting themselves up by a bootstrap,” they are no longer pressing some liberal case for equality, they are embracing an un-American notion. They are trolling for victims. Victims of religion. Of industry. Of race. Of circumstance. Of history. Once socialists have convinced an entire generation they’re victims, there is no way back.

Fortunately, my emotional detestation of collectivism comports perfectly with my intellectual detestation of Bernie’s movement. Capitalism saves the victims that socialism produces. Nothing achieved under socialism can’t be achieved under capitalism—other than perhaps inducing perfectly healthy people from a beautiful island to get on rickety homemade rafts and try to traverse the Caribbean to move to Florida. And yet, here we are. Again.

William F. Buckley Jr., this magazine’s founder, had typical prescience in a 1962 debate with novelist Norman Mailer, who, like Bernie, was a Castro apologist. Buckley noted that while Americans didn’t know how to deal with Communist dictators, “there is a much bigger problem: We don’t know how to deal with Harvard University. If Harvard couldn’t spot Castro for what he is and show us how to cope with him, who can?” The “dulled . . . moral and intellectual reflexes” of our elites, Buckley said, are what should scare us most. 

The way we treat Bernie, as a crank or well-meaning left-winger, is itself a way to normalize Marxism—“democratic socialism,” in this iteration. We would never treat any other similarly destructive ideology with the same nonchalance. For me, it’s nearly unfathomable to accept that my parents—and thousands of others who gave up their friends and families to come to this meritocratic nation—would ever have as their president a socialist who praised the Soviet Union. 

Happy warriors shouldn’t take politics too personally. When it comes to Marxists, and I have no doubt Bernie is one, I make an exception. I take history too seriously not to.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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