As hard as it is to believe in our day and age, there was a time – not within living memory, but not even a century ago – when communism was an untried idea. And by “untried”, I don't mean morally, politically, or economically – those issues were already well along the road to settlement before the October Revolution. Anyone with any sense in the post-Marx, pre-Bolshevik period could have told you that communism, as a theory, was deeply mistaken about human nature, and deeply immoral when it comes to what human priorities ought to be. But theory is one thing, and application is another – and some theories simply cry out for a test, no matter how potentially destructive that test may be. And this is not to say that there weren't “instances” of communism (in practice, if not in explicit theory) prior to the Russian Revolution. There was, of course, the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, and any number of collectivist Utopian societies – mostly in the United States – throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th. But those societies were wholly voluntary, and limited in scope and geography... and the Paris Commune, while it served to inspire generations of dedicated communists (unto this day), was what one might call a “beta version” -- if anything, it didn't go far enough, according to strict communist theory.
It really took the Russian Revolution to set the stage for what one might call a “serious” evaluation of communism – not just as a theory (a political metaphysics, if you will) but as a system. And this is not to discount the other, relatively minor, experiments with communism that took place at the same time – i.e. right after World War I. There was Bavaria, for example, and Hungary. But those attempts were aborted... and in Hungary's case, had to wait until the Soviet Union moved in after World War II to help out. (The Bavarian case, incidentally, contributed greatly to the cause of national socialism – possibly the last word in unanticipated consequences.)
In any case, Russia, after the Revolution, became the test case... the great experimental laboratory... the petri dish... for the world. The initial controversy revolved around a question of priorities – was communism primarily an international movement, or should it be implemented one nation at a time and fashioned, as it were, according to the “needs” of a particular society? In other words, was it all “plain vanilla” or was it allowed to manifest in different flavors (which turned out to be the case – national character being one thing that even communism could not completely extinguish)? Russia showed some ambivalence on this issue, once Trotsky was out of the way – first adopting the “one nation at a time” approach but then, gradually, expanding its vision a bit to the point where, for example, the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were infiltrated with Soviet agents. They were working, of course, in the interests of the Soviets, but at the same time (pace John Lukacs) held out hope that America might yet be the last, best hope for a communist Utopia.
And, at the same time, Eastern Europe had fallen into Stalin's lap – courtesy of Roosevelt and Churchill – and so a whole new round of experimentation could begin. And then you had China, and Korea, and Vietnam, and Cuba, and... the list goes on and on. The high water mark of communism in the world – i.e. the Cold War era -- certainly made it appear as if this philosophy – this system – was on the verge of conquering the entire planet. And this would have given the lie, once and for all, to claims that such a system could not exist for long, given its internal contradictions. If you're a strict Darwinian when it comes to politics, you have to admit that, indeed, any system that survives is, by definition, “fit”. Which means that communism was, and is, “fit” -- depending on time and place (but then, what system isn't?). So, for example, communism obviously “works”, in a sense, in Cuba – since they have remained under the same communist regime for 50 years now. And it obviously works, after a fashion, in North Korea – “65 years young”. So the internal contradictions and outright “wrongness” of communism in the generic sense seem to take a long time to have an effect. The Soviet Union, for instance, lasted for over 70 years. So this makes it a bit tricky to argue against communism – the argument in principle is, in fact, easier than the argument in application. And the wishful thinking of George W. Bush (if “thinking” is the word...) that communism has now been tossed onto the ash heap of discarded ideas seems premature, given such phenomena as Chavez's Venezuela. But I'm rushing ahead.
Now, the usual counter to this point is that anything “good” about a communist regime is a sign that, at least in that one instance, some communist principle has been violated. In other words, the only good things about any communist regime are those instances where it is not communist. And this argument could certainly be made, in spades, about today's China. More “rigid” or “Stalinist” regimes, on the other hand, seem to be a source of endless and bottomless misery for their citizens – as witness North Korea and Cuba, arguably the most “purely”communist regimes of our time (although there have been others that were, possibly, even more pure – like the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, where half the population succeeded in slaughtering the other half... purely on principle, mind you – an actual civil war was never declared).
Another counter is that communism only survives when, like some sort of tumor, it manages to latch itself onto “healthier” systems and economies, and taps into their resources. But who was it that was “tapped” by Cuba? Why, the Soviet Union, of course – another communist system. And who did Mao's China tap into at the beginning? The Soviets. And who did North Korea and North Vietnam tap into? China. And so on. (Angola even tapped into Cuba – which shows you, I guess, how desperate Angola was.) So even if many communist societies were not self-sufficient, world communism as a single entity was, for all intents and purposes.
But to return to the initial point – unlike in 1914, say, when communism was, by and large, still only an idea, no one any longer has an excuse when it comes to judging communism as a viable political system. And this makes it kind of awkward for the residual communists who are solidly in place in American colleges and universities – there are just too many data now, too much evidence. Oh for the days when we could spend all day over coffee and cigarettes (now forbidden) to talk about “ideas”! The worst thing that can happen to bad ideas is that someone actually tries them out. Then the practitioners of those ideas have to retreat to the fastnesses of institutes of “higher education” (not to mention tenure) in order to maintain their purity – and to infect new generations of the naïve, clueless, and concupiscent. So what we wind up with is a schism of sorts between the “idea people” and the “implementation people” -- where they no longer energetically feed off one another, as in the glory days of the early Soviet Union, but where the implementers have one agenda and would become a bit impatient with the idea types... and where the idea types are made just a bit uneasy by the implementers. Even the most deluded Marxist has to recognize that communism doesn't always work out in practice... and that, more often than not, it's downright catastrophic. This, they will tell you, is based not on flaws in the ideas, or the theory, but on the failures and the character flaws of the people charged with implementation. Well, OK – certainly no set of political, economic, or social ideas, no matter how noble or how rightly founded in a clear-headed view of human nature, “works out” up to the anticipated potential – and that includes the American system, which existed in “pure” form maybe up to the Civil War, but has hardly been exemplary since. The problem with communism has not been that it's entirely wrong on all counts, but that the gap between its premises and actual human nature has been just too big to bridge. Classical democratic and republican theorists have run into the same problem – as have socialists, fascists, anarchists, libertarians, and what not... but the “gap” in those cases has been, I dare say, smaller and more bridgeable than in the communist case. They can survive, in other words, some compromises with human nature. (And yes, I even include national socialism – it had a better handle on human nature than Marxism does. And yet Marxism won... but only with the cooperation of the democracies – which may say more about democracy than we would like to think.)
But with all of this mountain of evidence, there is an accompanying phenomenon, namely forgetfulness and willful ignorance. Soviet communism, for example, “wasn't given a fair chance”. Right – only 70-plus years of misery, two or three lost generations, and – not to forget – we supported it much more than we opposed it. After all, what was the Cold War compared to our support of the Soviets all during the New Deal and during World War II... and right up to the “Iron Curtain” speech (Churchill again – can't we ever get rid of this guy?). Bolshevism could have been nipped in the bud the minute World War I was concluded – but there was no political will to do so. And what was the Cold War but a long, drawn-out exercise in regret that we had so readily ceded Eastern Europe to the Soviets? Plus, don't get me started on China! Something there was that did not love Chiang's razor-sharp trouser creases and Madame Chiang's silk dresses – we were much more comfortable with the Red Army's uniforms, resewn from old sleeping bags. The real insult didn't come until Castro took over Cuba – and even then, most of the serious objection came from the mobsters that he threw out of Havana (and who might have had it in for JFK for failing to take Cuba back via the Bay of Pigs – and you know what happens when you displease the Mob). The way I see it, the Cold War was less a war of ideas (even though that is how it was always represented to the American public) than a war of empires – in other words, it was a pure power game. And to the respective intelligence agencies (CIA and KGB) it was nothing but a game (and a source of limitless funding). But I digress.
I've discussed, in a previous post, how American liberals were – deservedly – whiplashed by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which was followed in due course by the Nazis' invasion of the Soviet Union. Here we could already see the signs of degeneration and cynicism – not to mention plain stupidity – that have always characterized “communist sympathizers” -- and still do. When you get down to cases, it's all about raw power... and spectacles like the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (after North Vietnam won the war against the U.S.) just further reduce their ideas to absurdity. If “democracies don't wage war against democracies” (not true), then it must be doubly true that bonafide communist states don't wage war against other communist states (also not true).
But there is the other philosophical ailment of liberals, which is the perennial notion that because something “ought to” be the case, or true, or right, that it is, indeed, the case... or true, or right. And this is what had them making excuses for communist excesses from the very beginning. Again, it was the notion that communism would work – and create a new world -- “if only given a chance” by the old, fuddy-duddy, traditionalist democracies... if only it weren't for “fascist”, or “reactionary”, or “counter-revolutionary” elements.
So I say again, evidence had nothing to do with it... and neither does it to this day. The only reason Cuba is an economic basket case is that we persist in our inhumane boycott... and yet most of the world isn't in on the boycott. So explain that. Communism in Africa (which I see as mostly a cover for tribalistic tyranny) is still infinitely preferable to the old, hated colonial system. Right? And just because Kim Jong-Il is paranoid doesn't mean that everyone isn't out to get him. Et cetera. Plus – look at all the new evidence. This just in! China is communist, and yet it's running rings around us, capitalism-wise, and buying up all of our national debt to boot. So the picture is confusing, to say the least... at least to people who have never been anything but confused. And sooner or later indifference sets in – in the long run, communism is no better or worse than any other system, it's just one of many alternatives, and we should let people choose their own form of government in the interest of self-determination, and so on. This is what I mean by forgetfulness and willful ignorance. And it could go on like this indefinitely, except for cases like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.
Ah, yes – here we have a brand-new experiment, in a country that (for Latin America in particular) was already fairly prosperous and advanced – but still rife with “unfairness” and “injustice”. Maybe this time it'll come out right! And yet – and again, to the dismay of many in the halls of American academe – it doesn't seem to be coming out quite right. And can we really say that Chavez is being sabotaged by his enemies? More likely, he's being sabotaged by himself... and by the people whose hero he pretends to be. Even if he adopts a policy of splendid isolation – along North Korea lines – it doesn't look like any sort of Utopia on the Orinoco is in the offing. Maybe it's just a question of “too much, too fast” -- but isn't that in the very nature of communism? Revolution now, not next year or next week or tomorrow? Bring down the pillars of capitalism in one fell swoop, and all will be well – the people will rise up, reborn and remade, and create an idyllic land of brotherhood. I mean, gosh, the Khmer Rouge didn't even think they needed a decadent, capitalist-style sewer system in Phnom Penh, so they blew it up. And corrective lenses? That's for quitters! You know the drill...
But how are the American, liberal, mainstream media responding to this spectacle? With the usual ambivalence, of course. If Chavez were an avowed fascist, who kept portraits of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco on his office wall, the judgment would be quick, and harsh. And granted, the world is a different place than it was in 1917... or 1945... or 1949... or 1959. All this interdependency! All this communication! The very things that liberalism has always used as a weapon in the cause of collectivization turn out to be liabilities when someone tries to start from scratch. And then you have a new set of dependencies to think about – if Bolivia and Nicaragua are following Venezuela's lead, how soon do they get sucked into the same maelstrom? Sheesh... it's enough to make you wish Spain had never been run out of South America.
So while Chavez's troubles may not be a cure-all for the above-described forgetfulness and willful ignorance, they at least qualify as current events – as visible, real-time demonstrations of what has always been wrong with the communist mindset and what will always be wrong with it, even unto the end of time. It may not constitute conclusive proof for the critics, but at least it puts a crimp in this nostalgia we're already seeing... you know, that Russia was somehow better off under Stalin, and China better off under Mao, and so on. Cuba and North Korea should have been enough, but they are ossified and frozen in time, whereas Venezuela is a work in progress – or regress, if you like. There are still choices to be made... and most of them are being made badly. And yes, it's just another sad case, and it's sad for the people who have to live there and put up with it... but as they say, there is no such thing as a total loss; it can always be used as a bad example. And in these times in particular, with “capitalism” on the ropes, it helps to be reminded, on a daily basis, that the “future” that Lincoln Steffens said “works” really doesn't work at all – never has, never will. Which, in turn, might get a few people thinking about real alternatives to socialism and tyranny of any stripe.