The Poverty of Anti-Communism

The Poverty of Anti-Communism

Mini Teaser: American anti-Communists distorted and corrupted the domestic political scene with exaggerations of a threat that was never as strong--or worrisome--as they pretended it to be.

by Author(s): John Lukacs

The act of 1917 was less than critical historically? It fueled
Stalin's ideological imperialism in 1945. Here is a personal
perspective: I was nineteen years old when the bomb fell on
Hiroshima; I was a senior citizen when the Wall came down in Berlin.
My entire adult lifetime was spent during the period that Eastern
Europe was in chains. How critical Communist faith--sincere or
feigned--was to the leaders of the Soviet superpower we are free to
deliberate. But they thought it critical, even as one must suppose a
pope considers it critical to affirm Christianity. Gorbachev
reaffirmed his faith in Communism in January of 1987, the second year
in which he held power. The workers' banner had to be held high, he
thought, on pressing the war in Afghanistan, even if it rested on
philosophical, historical and sociological junk. He sought to justify
a mission that would otherwise have been denounced in the same
accents used to discredit British colonialism. Fidel Castro saw the
need to make this reaffirmation on the last day of 1998.

It's all very strange, given that dilettantes with minimum historical
ingenuity can argue discrete events as historically critical, e.g.,
the birth of Einstein; Hitler; Lenin. John Lukacs for years has
labored to dissociate himself from the credenda of us cold warriors,
who labored so hard to protect his liberties: One more fruit of

Robert Conquest:

John Lukacs seems to have abandoned his usual critical stance on a wide front; this note covers only some of his many points.

He quotes William Buckley, Jr., as saying that history changed gears in 1917, and insists that it really changed gears in 1914. But all this is metaphorical; and anyhow, if we stick to the metaphor history might be allowed more than one change of gear. And even if we accept that the outbreak of World War I was the beginning of the century's Gadarene rush, it can be argued that but for the Bolshevik Revolution that rush might yet have been stopped.

Odder yet are Lukacs' notions, first that Buckley was speaking ex cathedra, and second that he has formal authority over the views of anyone else.

This is all of a piece with his extraordinary listing of Nazism, Communism and antiCommunism as three "ideologies." Ideology is, to be sure, a word used variously by different people. But Lukacs' implication here is clearly that these three isms are comparable mindsets. They are not. First, as against Nazism and Communism, "anti-Communist" does not describe anyone's thought except on the issue of the nature of Communism. Whereas in the case of Communism, even if various of its sects interpreted it differently, they were all committed to a single and comprehensive world view. Anti-Communists were not; they included Catholics and atheists, conservatives and social democrats, Republicans and Democrats, Ernst Reuter and Arthur Koestler, George Orwell and Ernest Bevin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, Scoop Jackson and Ronald Reagan, and so on and on.

I think I too can claim to figure as an "anti-Communist" (anti-Stalinist, anti-Maoist, anti-Castroist) of long standing. The reasons for, and the nature of, my anti-Communism have not changed in the least over the decades. My political and philosophical opinions have changed in a number of ways - even to-ing and fro-ing more than once between the major American and British political parties. Most, but not all, serious anti-Communists are equally anti-Fascist. That is, they are anti-totalitarian: or, to put it another way, we reject all closed systems of political and social thought, all supposedly infallible historical predictions, in favor of pluralism, pragmatism, short views, trial and error.

In Lukacs' account of the Cold War's development, the USSR is shown as repeatedly withdrawing, or considering withdrawing, from Eastern Europe. One would hardly guess from this that, except for a few marginal territories, Soviet power in Europe stood on much the same lines in 1990 as in 1945. The only significant exception was Yugoslavia - which in any case remained Communist, and the independence of which from Moscow was more than offset by the almost simultaneous Sovietization of Czechoslovakia (never mentioned by Lukacs).

Again, Lukacs says that there was only one Communist state in 1945, as if to diminish the significance of its threat. Some of the temporarily independent states of the former Russian empire were reconquered and reintegrated into the new empire in 1918-20, so that there was only one Communist state because it had swallowed others (though even this omits Mongolia, for instance). To assert such a thing as of 1945, moreover, is simply to ignore the absorption of the Baltic States in 1940!

Lukacs rightly notes that some anti-Communists could legitimately be accused of hysteria. So could plenty of anti-antiCommunists, in America as elsewhere. Indeed, as one who remained in Europe after Lukacs left (and, in fact, lived in a Communist country until 1948), I note that in Britain and France virtually all the hysteria was from the anti-anti-Communist side - as Orwell pointed out long ago.

Meanwhile, surely we can be spared the logic of "Father Coughlin was a half-crazed fanatic. Father Coughlin was antiCommunist. Therefore all anti-Communists are half-crazed fanatics."

Robert Conquest is a fellow of the Hoover Institution. His Reflections on a Ravaged Century will be published by W.W. Norton later this year.

Nathan Glazer:

John Lukacs' "The Poverty of Anti-Communism", like so much of his writing, is filled with obiter dicta, some of which strike one as well taken, some of which seem nonsensical (Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism "fraudulent"?; her analysis of totalitarianism "nonsense"?), and others of which are just mystifying.

To reduce the significance of anti-Communism, it is necessary to reduce the significance of Communism, and Lukacs does this in three ways: he concentrates on Russia and the Soviet Union as the chief, indeed the only significant, carrier of Communism; he ignores the role of Communism in Western Europe; and he just about ignores the role of Communism in China - after all, the largest country in the world - and in much of the Third World.

One problem in getting to grips with his essay is that while we have a clear idea of two of the three great forces that according to Lukacs competed for world dominance in the second quarter of the twentieth century, we have no clear idea of what this third force, Communism, was, and of what Lukacs conceives it to be. Parliamentary democracy and National Socialism can be specifically described, in terms of their ideology and their political and economic institutions. But what is the Communism that competed with them and that according to Lukacs was the weakest of the three? He treats it basically as Russian nationalism and imperialism. Indeed, Russia was economically and in the end militarily weaker than either Germany under Hitler, or the United States. Fears of this Communism could in many quarters be described as excessive and exaggerated. But Communism had a specifically ideological content, as did parliamentary democracy and National Socialism, and this ideological content - its philosophy of history, its criticism of capitalism, its utopian hope in an ideal and final condition of society to be constituted by the proletariat - is not so easily dismissed. It had a robust history, and one which is not yet at an end, despite the collapse of the Russian empire.

It may well be the case that hardly anyone believed in Communism in Russia as its economy disintegrated, and as its people experienced Communism in practice, as realized by the dictatorial leaders of an authoritarian party. But the West was confronting a closed society where one could not conduct opinion polls, in possession of very powerful armed forces and atomic weapons, and an ideology that demanded fulfillment through expansion. It is too easy after the fact to dismiss the serious concern that this situation required. Possibly no one believes in Communism in China now too, and we deal there with more conventional issues in foreign policy and strategy, and the fact that the posters of Marx and Engels are still to be found there may not matter much. But North Korea, which gives us much concern, is an avowedly and formally Communist state. Would it be just as troublesome if it were simply a nationalist North Korea without Communist ideology? I do not think so.

In Italy and France there were huge Communist parties, Communism had great influence among the intellectual classes, and we feared a possible Communist victory in those countries in the wake of World War II. The heirs of these parties still play a large role in the politics of these countries. What do we make of this? Was Communism simply an epiphenomenon? Was it simply to be shrugged off? Or did it not require continual battle, in various spheres, from the academic and intellectual to the electoral, to keep the spread of Communism in check?

There is no reference to Latin America or Africa or South Asia in Lukacs' essay. Was the appeal of Communism in those areas simply a calculated ploy by cynical leaders to see how much poor countries could get from the Cold War antagonists, by threatening to go over to the other side? That was part of the story of the surprising strength of Communism in many poor countries. But a larger part was the attraction of a fully formulated ideology that explained why poor people became and remained poor, and why poor nations became and remained poor. In the universities of Latin America, of Africa, of South Asia, that ideology is still dominant in the social sciences and the humanities. It plays no small role still in the universities of the Western World.

Essay Types: Essay