A century's fascination with communism

January 27, 2000|By Lee Edwards

BY ANY MEASURE, communism was a seismic presence in human affairs in the 20th century, turning the world on its head, shaking it violently and creating an unparalleled amount of suffering. By exterminating as many as 100 million people, it raised immensely troubling questions about human nature and especially our capacity to murder and maim in the pursuit of utopia.

As the editor of a recent volume containing essays by several great historians of communism, including Robert Conquest, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Pipes and Paul Hollander, I continue to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the horror communism visited on those it sought to liberate. There is, first and foremost, the body count. Robert Conquest, the great chronicler of Stalin's terror, reminds us that the Ukrainian famine alone claimed 6 million to 7 million people. One shudders to contemplate what will be discovered if the files are opened on communist China, Cuba and North Korea. Communism is unmatched as a source of purposeful suffering. The indictment does not end there. As a totalitarian system, communism laid claim to body, mind and spirit. Religious philosopher Michael Novak reminds us that communist theory considered humans as strictly material beings. Once reduced to mere matter, the oppression and slaughter that followed was both logical and, in a perverse sense, laudatory. To the communist, writes Mr. Novak: "The individual should expect to be expended, sacrificed, used up, like a thing. Like the steel girders he could see rusting, unwanted and unused, outside the mills of Nowa Huta."

Communism was also a colossal economic blunder. One statistic makes the point: In 1987, Singapore -- a nation-state of only 2 million residents -- exported 20 percent more machinery to the West than did all of Eastern Europe. No wonder 1.5 million East Germans applied for exit visas in 1989, and as many as 5 million of the nation's 16.5 million citizens indicated that they would leave if possible.

Yet for all its horrors, communism provided the world with several indelible lessons. As Ronald Reagan reminded the British Parliament in 1982, private farms -- which occupied only 3 percent of the Soviet Union's arable land -- produced nearly one-quarter of farm output and a third of meat products and vegetables. One could not find a more profound contrast between free markets and a command economy. Nor could one find a system more dedicated to the suppression of free speech or whose demise was more quickened by the information revolution. The exasperation by party bosses over the information revolution was perfectly summed up by the East European official who denounced television antennas as the "enemy of the people."

Astoundingly, however, communism enjoyed support among many cultural figures otherwise fully dedicated to freedom of speech and conscience. Upton Sinclair dismissed death by collectivization by coldly noting that it might "cost a million lives -- maybe it (will) cost 5 million. There has never been in human history a great social change without killing."

Journalists of the era, most notably the New York Times' Walter Duranty, were unable to bring themselves to write about the horrors unfolding before them. Novelist Graham Greene went so far as to say that if he "had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union."

If such utterances, collected through the years by Hollander, merely represented lapses in personal judgment, we would be wasting our time recounting them. But the lesson is as clear as it is painful: Many of the West's best and brightest, who enjoyed immense levels of political, intellectual and material freedom, supported or at least condoned history's most brutal instrument of oppression. We must be wiser in this century.

"If we cannot get straight the rights and wrongs of the struggle between communism and anti-communism," wrote Joshua Muravchik, "itself perhaps the greatest moral struggle of (the 20th) century, then it is hard to see what other issues we will ever be able to address intelligently."

Lee Edwards is a contributor to and editor of "The Collapse of Communism." He wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.

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