Messianic Communism

WILLIAM PFAFF

April 05, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The connection of totalitarianism to bureaucracy has been an enormous gift to those who wish to understand the strange but characteristic events of a recent and terrible past.

The meticulous party and police bureaucracy in the Soviet Union recorded in detail the Communist Party's use of terror in governing the Soviet Union, demanding quotas of murders and arrests simply to terrorize the masses. One would think killings and imprisonments would be anonymous and unrecorded in such circumstances.

They were not. It was all carefully put on paper, where it is found today: who was arrested, what the pretext was, how the evidence was fabricated and ''confessions'' obtained, what was done with the victim, who accounted to whom in the hierarchy, and all the rest.

The Communist International's records now are open. The International, or ''Comintern'' (later the ''Cominform,'' or Communist ''information bureau''), was the agency by which the Soviet Communist Party governed the larger Communist movement between 1919 and the 1940s in the guise of a ''fraternal'' association of the world's Communist parties.

It not only set the policy ''line'' but supervised the organization of regional and local cells in foreign countries, recording the names of militants, even directing the choice of candidates for local office. The Soviet government also financed the foreign Communist parties, with millions of dollars -- overall, probably billions (and this continued until late in the Gorbachev era).

Of course the rank-and-file militants in those foreign Communist parties did not think of themselves as under Soviet control. They were working for the cause of revolution in their own countries, a revolution they thought would bring them the prosperity, ''true'' democracy, success and popular solidarity they were convinced already prevailed in the U.S.S.R. Their leaders, who were often in Moscow, or even spent much of their careers there, knew better about the conditions of life in the Communist motherland. But seeing for them was not believing.

The messianism of the Communist enterprise during those years combined with the discipline of Communist organization to produce not only a double language but a doubled perception of reality even at the very top of the international organization. If you lost this capacity for divided thought -- as some did -- you defected, or were executed, or, in the later years of Communist power, you succumbed to careerism, privilege, or to drunkenness, moral suicide.

A group of French historians has been working in Moscow during the past year on the French Communist Party's records in the Comintern archives. One of them, Stephane Courtois, remarks that ''the wooden language'' these Comintern officials used in the years of Communist idealism ''was not habit or cynicism but a true reflection of their belief and messianism.''

''This 'sacred' dimension of their commitment as Communists is revealed in these documents in its full importance.'' They saw the world around them as their ideology described it, not as they actually witnessed it.

Their aseptic language, with its verbose and abstract formulations, concealed from outsiders what really was being thought and done, but also rationalized for the insiders the movement's renunciation of what they described as ''bourgeois morality.'' It was this that made possible the betrayals, the purges, mass murders and labor camps, all of them justified as progressive necessities.

Theirs was also a form of thought which, by privileging theory over reality, led the Communists again and again into disastrous tactical choices: the agricultural collectivizations inside Russia, the tacit alliance in Weimar Germany with the Nazis in order to check the Social Democrats, the Nazi-Soviet pact itself.

It prevented learning from experience because the test was not reality but conformance to Marxist-Leninist theory. Russia might be starving, but it had been right to collectivize the peasantry because collective production was progressive and peasant landholding reactionary. The Social Democrats in Germany had to be destroyed because they pretended to be progressive and might delude the masses, whereas Nazism was a transient episode in the preordained decline of capitalism.

In the end, the test of reality brought the whole thing down. The Allies' victory in World War II allowed the Soviet regime to reinvigorate itself by installing new ''revolutionary'' regimes by force throughout Eastern Europe and part of Asia (where Ho Chi Minh, a founder of the French Communist Party as well as of its Vietnamese counterpart, had been a Comintern agent). The result of the reality test was ineluctable political and economic decline, leading to the collapse of 1989-90.

Marxism's bad luck was to have won power. Had it not done so, Marxism as a revolutionary movement might still prosper -- as do Maoist sects in Western countries, and the ''Shining Path'' in Peru, and all the Red Army Fractions and Black Septembers and Revolutionary Commandos of this or that.

Marxism was destroyed by being compelled to be responsible for reality. The abstractions by which it had sought power corrupted the Communists in power. The failure was inevitable. But the cautionary fact is that it took 70 years to go from the millenarian beginnings to the sordid end.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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