What You Should Think About Communism

November 7, 2007

“I am not a Marxist.”

–Karl Marx

Like many, if not most, Americans, I was assigned a reading of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school. Like most Americans familiar with the book, I was instructed that it was a condemnation of communism. My teacher failed to make a significant distinction. Animal Farm is actually a condemnation of Stalinism. The Red Scare left America with deep psychological scars, including an inability to make that crucial distinction between communism — an economic ideology that emphasizes egalitarianism — and Stalinism — among the most murderous approaches to politics history has ever known.

Still, as Marx himself observed in private correspondence, his contributions to the philosophy of social justice spawned a movement vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Violence and even terrorism had already become tools of anarchists. Yet all their fury was directed toward incoherent, almost senseless, idealism. Communism does not transcend all practical concerns, but it is a more sensible form of idealism than simply annihilating all civic institutions. Thus whatever promise it might have offered in terms of overturning stagnant outdated economic paradigms was tempered with the potential to motivate acts of violence.

The fall of the Romanov dynasty was a much more complicated confluence of events than common knowledge would suggest. Some scholars prefer to think of the transition as two distinct revolutions. Regardless of how the process is labeled, it was the case that the ultimate architects of the Soviet state were only one faction of many working to break czarist control over the peoples of the old Russian Empire. Democrats and communists fought side by side in a struggle for liberation that was much more bloody, but no less idealistic, than the war that gave birth to American democracy.

As it happened, a Russian patriot by the name of Alexander Kerensky led the most organized provisional government in the chaos that followed the fall of the Romanov dynasty. At that point, Bolshevik communists were radicals widely regarded as part of a political fringe. In fact, the term “Bolshevik” is merely Russian for “party of the smaller part” as contrasted with “Menshevik” meaning “party of the larger part.” Taken less literally, they may be thought of as ways of saying “minority” and “majority.” Because they advocated violent methods of political action while calling for more radical and immediate changes than most communists supported, a rift separated the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks.

Yet 1917 was a year of wild-eyed hope for all Russian populists. Just as democratic reformers sympathetic to capitalism were happy to share power with Menshevik activists, imprisoned Bolsheviks were set free and welcomed into the revolutionary coalition. The incendiary rhetoric of these radicals had an especially strong effect on masses of urban workers still struggling with extreme poverty even after the detention of the Romanovs. Before the year was over, Kerensky would be deposed and Vladimir Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, would rise to power.

Chaos continued, with counterrevolutionary forces deploying assassins against many leaders of the emerging Soviet regime. Lenin would dodge bullets before they found him, but find him they did. In the mean time, actually being hunted by enemies fueled any paranoia that might have existed in the Soviet leadership. To Lenin this meant the need for a ruthless secret police force. To Stalin this meant the need to impose autocracy, eliminate rivals, and conduct a nationwide political purge that would ultimately lead to the deaths of millions upon millions of citizens.

It is hard to say what would have happened to the creatures in Animal Farm if Old Major had lived or if Snowball had become his successor instead of Napoleon. It is also hard to say what would have happened if Lenin had lived or Leon Trotsky had become the second head of the Soviet regime. The veil of Orwell’s allegory was deliberately thin. It is only a lack of historical perspective that enables many Americans to twist the work into a McCarthy-style diatribe against communism. More astute reading reveals that it is a very specific lamentation about quirks of fate that ultimately placed the full power of the U.S.S.R. under the control of a malicious paranoid little man literally afflicted with a Napoleon complex.

Thus it is that people from the President of the United States to high school sophomores being assigned Animal Farm readings this year all come away with the misconception that communism is incompatible with democracy, civil rights, governmental accountability, etc. For some of my fellow Americans, the term “communism” invokes a primal hostility along with a sense of superiority that comes from the misconception that capitalism is uniquely capable of fostering free speech, free travel, fair elections, etc. Literary and historical misinformation is systematically passed from one generation to the next because these crucial misunderstandings are so widely accepted as ironclad fact.

I would never contend that one should be sympathetic to Stalin or Stalinism. Even the heroism and sacrifice of Soviet military personnel turning back the forces of Nazi Germany is mitigated by the way in which Stalinist purges compare to the Holocaust in terms of both death tolls and institutionalized cruelty. Yet the thing to keep in mind in all of this is that Soviet oppression and mass murder was not a function of the desire of revolutionaries to live in a more equitable society than czarist Russia. It was a function of an extreme bunker mentality made manifest through the personal failings of an arrogant yet insecure world leader.

Of course communism is not the alpha and omega of wisdom about distribution of wealth. It is a perspective that has limited utility. The madness born of the Cold War and maintained even today in the United States is a belief that capitalism is the alpha and omega of wisdom about the distribution of wealth. In fact, it too is merely a perspective with limitations on its usefulness. Being able to see things from a Marxist or communist perspective is not at all a personal failure or a source of danger. Adopting a taboo mentality about this realm of philosophy only degrades the discourse emergent from people practicing this form of willful blindness.

Part of what makes Karl Marx’s insights worthy of consideration in modern times is that they had tremendous predictive value, by philosophical standards. He foresaw the rise of automation, pressures to increase the economic gaps between investors and workers, and even the danger of a new aristocracy. Corporate titles have replaced hereditary nobility, but the inherited fortunes and the extent of cradle to grave privilege remain much the same. It seems as if some capitalist societies have come to be dominated dominated by hereditary aristocrats lacking any sense of noblesse oblige.

Likewise, today’s working poor may have cable television and used cars, but that does not mean the power imbalance is without drawbacks. Much to the puzzlement of other civilized peoples, in America the debate today is about whether or not the working poor are worthy of access to medical care. Even more than with educational opportunity, the existing national compromise in that area is an anti-growth policy that perpetuates hardship based on some bizarre notion that an easier life for laborers will reduce the level of interest working folks have in pursuing professional advancement.

Ultimately this rests on a profound misunderstanding of human nature. Other nations pursuing downright generous welfare policies, never mind merely implementing universal health care, have not been brought to their knees by an epidemic of idleness or a lack of ambition. Such claims may be popular talking points for conservative political campaigns in places like France or Sweden, but the underlying reality reveals stable growth. Then there is the matter of fiscal solvency, but surely that is a “glass houses and stones” issue considering how our cutthroat economy continues to break new ground in the field of deficit financing.

Personally, I believe in a sort of selective socialism. “Privatize everything” is surely as counterproductive, not to mention stupid, as “nationalize everything.” Yet there is a wonderful and vast middle ground where a range of practical concerns can be brought to bear. In that moderate zone, decisions about profit vs. public interest can be made based on relevant realities.

This requires nuance and attention to detail, but those things are obtainable if one has the good sense to try and evaluate the world from multiple perspectives. Just as being blind in one eye eliminates depth perception, constantly deferring to a single economic ideology leaves one much less informed about contemporary realities.

Of course, in an ideal world everyone would treat every ideology as a frame of reference. There, everyone would engage in something deeper than pure ideology when it comes to analyzing the great issues of our times. Hope alone cannot transform Earth into an ideal world, but it may guide us as we seek to become closer to useful ideals in our individual approaches to civic life.