Communism's Spiritual Values

December 21, 1991

Twenty-four hours a day the red banner flies over Kremlin spires. Floodlights and a forced-air system keep it proudly billowing through gloomy nights and windless days. But not much longer. On the last day of this year, the Soviet flag will be lowered and the flag of Russia will rise in its place. The ceremony will mark the end of one more effort to remake human nature.

The Soviet state was supposed to be more than a new form of government; it was an optimistic attempt to create a new human consciousness. Karl Marx thought that only a clutter of privilege and exploitation prevents men and women from achieving their natural freedom and creativity. By removing the conditions thought to deform human nature, the Soviet founders hoped to make people understand that their strength lay in collective action.

The New Soviet Man would work co-operatively, instead of at cross purposes. Material abundance would follow. With material needs satisfied, the reason for crime would disappear. With laborers allowed to keep the fruits of their toil, leisure would expand and culture flourish. Since Marxism was a science, its predictions must be infallible, or so "progressives" said. "Reactionaries" were those who stood in the way of the wheel of history.

But a lot of "clutter" had to be swept away before the promised fulfillment. Some 25 million Soviet citizens perished by purge, terror and induced famine -- all justified as necessary to overcome the "bourgeois" past. Elsewhere, more millions died on the altars of the radiant future. In Cambodia, it was enough that one had traveled abroad, or spoke a foreign language, or owned a book, or wore glasses: All were evidence of a this-worldly taint requiring disqualification from service as a building block of the utopia to come.

And yet, when the Berlin Wall fell two years ago, there were Germans, as well as campus Marxists in the United States, who mourned the loss of communism's spiritual values. Spiritual values: that would have puzzled Karl Marx, who thought he was a materialist. But it was clear what were meant: selflessness, comradeship, co-operation, modesty, virtue -- qualities that triumphalist Western materialism has dumped into the dustbin of history. So communism turned out not to be "progressive" science, but religion, the opiate of the Ivory Tower. It is telling that Arthur Koestler, a disillusioned Marxist, titled his denunciation of Soviet Marxism "The God That Failed."

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