Clinging to Faith

Clinging to Faith

Mini Teaser: From the wreckage of communism's legacy, the ideology rises again.

by Author(s): Paul Hollander

The collapse of communist states in Eastern Europe in 1989 and of the Soviet Union itself in 1991 was widely assumed to mark the end of the historical career of communist systems and movements; it was also expected to discredit durably the ideas that animated them. The remaining incarnations of "scientific socialism"--notably the grotesque North Korean dictatorship and the bankrupt patrimony of Fidel Castro--were hardly inspiring models of a "socialism with a human face" for Western idealists and sympathizers.

The fall of communist states has been accompanied by a growing amnesia about the human toll exacted by the attempts to implement socialist ideals in the not-so-distant past, coupled with a revival of anti-capitalist sentiments generated by the problematic results of globalization, stimulating a new susceptibility to socialist ideals.

Needless to say, no similar attempts have been made to downplay or reinterpret non-judgmentally other major historical atrocities, including, in more recent times, the mass murders carried out by Nazi Germany. Academics today are not attempting to parse the populist elements of Nazism from its genocidal practices in the way ideologues cull communism's egalitarian message from its sordid applications.

In Russia an abiding veneration of that great guardian of order and stability, Stalin, is coupled with ambivalence about the Soviet past and a yearning for the security and superpower status it provided. Maoist guerillas have become powerful in Nepal in recent years and remain entrenched in many parts of India. Market economies failed to solve all social and economic problems in the countries where they were introduced; as a result, left-of-center governments and movements made progress in parts of the world, particularly Latin America. Democratically elected leftist governments came into power in Venezuela and Bolivia, likely to be followed, according to some experts, by others of their kind in the region.

In the West no such trends can be discerned at the present time, but the rejection of capitalism and bourgeois cultural values continues to prevail among many intellectuals and in academic subcultures. Although specific communist states, extinct or surviving, are no longer widely admired by Western intellectuals, their anti-capitalism and egalitarian rhetoric are still attractive. There also remains a steadfast denial on the Left that Marxism was implicated in the moral and political-economic failures of the now defunct communist states. As Kenneth Minogue observed in 1990: "When regimes collapse . . . the principles and ideals which animated them can be glimpsed creeping stealthily away from the rubble, unscathed. Communism 'never failed'--its exponents can be heard muttering--it was 'never tried.'" This is especially the case when, as Enrique Krauze wrote in the New Republic a decade later, "celebrity utopians need a new address for their fantasies", and no such address is available because no political systems or movements exist upon which wishful fantasies can be readily projected. What remains are the good intentions and hopes that have proved impossible to realize. This is why Cornel West could maintain that "Marxist thought becomes even more relevant after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before." A flickering loyalty to the ideals that promised to transcend sordid socio-political inequities persists, as the hard-core loyalists refuse to accept that the human condition cannot be radically altered and improved, and that the failed attempts to do so required huge amounts of coercion and violence--as the history of communist states has shown. Leszek Kolakowski's observation made in 1978 (in his history of Marxism) about the influence of Marxism remains largely valid: "Almost all the prophecies of Marx . . . have already proved false, but this does not disturb the spiritual certainty of the faithful . . . for it is a certainty not based on . . . 'historical laws', but simply on the psychological need for certainty. In this sense Marxism performs the function of religion . . . ."

The Old Guard

Present day radical leftists, anarchists and supporters of the (left-over) counterculture continue to draw inspiration from old-guard leftist thinkers, some dead and others of an advanced age--those prepared to minimize, deny or explain away a political system that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions.

Long before the fall of the Soviet Union, Western Marxists were compelled to find ways to protect their beliefs from the assault of the realities of existing communist states. The late historian and activist E. P. Thompson was one of them. He was deeply attached to communist ideals, despite disillusioning events (such as Khrushchev's revelations in 1956 and Soviet repression in Eastern Europe in the same year). In a hundred-page "letter" to Kolakowski, Thompson proclaimed that Marxism was not discredited by the depredations of Stalinism or flaws of existing socialist states; he emphasized the "utopian potentials" of Marxism. He argued that "our solidarity was given not to communist states in their existence but in their potential--not for what they were but for what . . . they might become . . . ." He rebuked Kolakowski for linking "actually existing" Soviet-style systems with Marxism. Fifty years, he said, was "too short a time in which to judge a new social system." He comes across as the prototypical true believer who regarded capitalism as the unchanging source of all evil and Marxism as its diametrical opposite: the solid source of all that is good and honorable.

Gus Hall, the general secretary of the U.S. Communist Party for several decades and a member since 1927, exemplifies unwavering commitment to the Soviet Union and a disciplined capacity to overlook its considerable blemishes. Following the fall of the Soviet communism he served all his life, he told reporters, "The world should see what North Korea has done . . . it's a miracle. If you want to take a nice vacation, take it in North Korea." He was not joking. His unwavering loyalty was rewarded by a $40 million subsidy between 1971 and 1990, provided by the Soviet authorities.

Herbert Aptheker, the Marxist historian, author of many books on black history and member of the U.S. Communist Party between 1939 and 1991, was of a similar generation. Although he broke with the party late in life, he remained a true believer in Marxism and the ineradicable evils of capitalism and American society. He believed, for instance, that higher education in the United States was "class- and race-based" and tightly controlled by the ruling classes. He succeeded in averting a major reassessment of his convictions because he managed to dissociate his pro-Soviet, communist beliefs from his lifelong struggle against racial discrimination that, he felt, legitimated all political stands he took.

Among the living, Eric Hobsbawm continues to offer another, better known example of the loyalties here discussed. Arguably his fame and reputation rest, in part, on personifying resistance to disillusionment in the face of the vast accumulation of historical evidence calling into question old leftist articles of faith. He has shown how one may admit the deep flaws of all communist regimes that ever existed yet continue to regard the ideals underpinning them as admirable and inspiring. As of 1994 he still averred that even if he had known in 1934 that "millions of people were dying in the Soviet experiment", he would not have renounced it because "the chance of a new world being born on great suffering would still have been worth backing." He wrote in his autobiography, "I belonged to the generation tied by an almost umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution and its original hope, the October Revolution . . . ." He saw himself as fighter for a better world trying to make sure that mankind "will not live without the ideals of freedom and justice."

The bedrock convictions of Noam Chomsky rest on different foundations: an exceptionally fierce hatred of the United States, rather than durable admiration of an alternative political system. Although not a professed Marxist, he detects economic interests at the root of American depravities and attributes exceptional ruthlessness and cunning to American elites and policymakers. He seems incapable of contemplating any moral outrage without comparing it to some allegedly greater, far more repellent atrocity committed by the United States. He would equate 9/11 with the American bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, the United States with Nazi Germany.

He has been tirelessly disseminating in his major message that no moral outrage could surpass those habitually committed by the United States (and its quasi-Nazi puppet, Israel). His attraction to communist systems has been episodic and based mainly on sympathy for the enemies of his archenemy. He repeatedly questioned the magnitude of Pol Pot's massacres in Cambodia and scorned the testimony of refugees both in an article published in 1977 in the Nation and a 1978 book. After all, Pol Pot was an enemy of his enemies, the rulers of the United States. While Chomsky and others denied the dimensions of Pol Pot's atrocities, similarly minimizing the human toll of Nazism is punishable by law in parts of Europe.

Chomsky also downplayed Eastern Europe's communist repression and said, "in comparison to conditions imposed by U.S. tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise." He considered Sandinista Nicaragua an inspiration for the downtrodden all over Latin America and even for the poor in the United States.

Essay Types: Essay