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More reflections on the end of the Soviet empire

David Thompson – a blogger who seems to find some superb photos for his site, by the way – has a nice roundup connected to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, about which Perry de Havilland has already had some thoughts. As a reminder, here is a film I mentioned some time ago, based in former East Germany, that is a telling story about the dangers of the surveillance state.

It remains something of a mystery as to why Communism was able to appeal to some very smart people for so long. Oh sure, many supporters of totalitarian socialism were transparently evil or very, very thick but obviously that does not quite explain it all. The idea of Marxism-Leninism as a substitute for religion comes closest, in my mind, to explaining its hold on many well-meaning minds as well as less benign ones. Some of that religious-substitute drive has now been shifted to the Green movement.

But even so, I continue to this day to be surprised by how supposedly sharp people got swayed by communism. Take one random example: the 20th century spy novelist and film screenwriter, Eric Ambler. I have long been a fan of his fiction: the modern spy novel owes a lot to his style and method. He died in the late 90s at a ripe old age; reading an introduction to one of his books, I was a bit taken aback – although maybe I should not have been – to read that he was an enthusiast for the Soviet Union right up until the Hitler-Stalin pact at the start of WW2, which “depressed him deeply”. One wonders why this acute observer of human nature in its more sleazy respects had not cottoned on to the massive killings, the Man-made famines, that were already an established feature of 1930s Russia? By the mid-30s, this stuff was not a secret any more. British journalists like Malcolm Muggeridge had already exposed a lot of what was going on; even old Bertrand Russell, a man capable of considerable foolishness as well as brilliance in other ways, fingered the Soviet Union as a gangster state.

15 comments to More reflections on the end of the Soviet empire

  • Nuke Gray

    Johnathon, there is no mystery about the appeal of communism, or any other totalitarian ideology. We all have a part of us that plans, and some people have an over-developed sense of planning. Why not design economies like we design cars?
    Just because previous examples didn’t work is no indication that I couldn’t succeed where they have all failed. In fact, the urge to be the first to design a successful society might be what drives them! Nobody remembers those who came after Armstrong to the moon.
    And when I look into the home life of communal philosophers, I think that they wanted to re-order society to become an extended family- to make up for the family life they didn’t get at home!
    So the reasons will be person- overplanning just for the sake of it, and emotional deficiencies. Have you ever noticed how dictators never have close, personal, friends? Perhaps, if Hitler had had a good friend, he could have talked out his problems, instead of taking them out on society.

  • Bubba Thudd

    I have heard Communism described as the last great Christian heresy. That would explain a lot.

  • William H Stoddard

    My view of communism is a variant on the one Bubba Thudd cites: I think of it as the fourth great prophetic religion, a rival and successor to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

    One of Doris Lessing’s novels—I think it may have been The Four-Gated City—takes places partly during the era in the late 1940s when the crimes of Stalin were becoming common knowledge. Lessing writes, very movingly, of the atmosphere among the Communists of the time, who watched as one after another of their comrades reached the point where they could no longer deny that Stalin was a mass murderer and despot, or endure to go on supporting him, and the word would go out that “X has broken with the Party.” And at the same time they would dread that they might reach that point, and yet think of it as “when” and not “if,” like dying. Because if they gave up their faith (and that’s clearly what it was) they would break with all their friends, who would regard them as traitors and dangerously contagious heretics, and be cut off from their community; and they would abandon the hope of a better world that they had lived by all their lives. It was heartbreaking to read, even though I knew as I read it that they were clinging loyally to an abusive monster and a fraudulent belief system. And in a sense they knew it, because they accepted that the evidence of Stalin’s crimes would become overwhelming for their friends and for themselves, and therefore they must have believed that it was beyond denial, but they themselves didn’t want to see the proof and know how bad things were.

  • I would add that, in the case of Ambler, a significant part of the explanation is simple lack of information. Many a newspaper-reading progressive of those days were swayed because the information coming out of the USSR (and regurgitated by journalists) was one-sided propaganda – all glowing successes, and not a word on the purges, gulags, oppression, etc. To wit, Paul Samuelson, an (undeservedly, IMHO) prominent economist, wrote in 1985: “”What counts is results, and there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth. . . . The Soviet model has surely demonstrated that a command economy is capable of mobilizing resources for rapid growth.”

  • Jim Vigotty

    Why did communism attract so many supporters. Well for those living in the East the saying that “a beaten dog is still loyal to it’s master because he’s the only master it knows.” definitely holds true. The rest of the world’s love affair with Communism, the Soviet Union, and Red China just proves that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  • veryretired

    Just as nature abhors a vacuum, human beings cannot exist without belief.

    Stop and consider the multitude of bizarre and bloodthirsty lunacies that have been held dear by any and all human cultures for millennia, from the isolated headhunters and cannibals to the living gods and anointed autocrats who ruled major civilizations well into the 20th century.

    By the middle of the 19th century, at least in Europe and North America, the idea that some hereditary superiority justified a few to lord it over the many had seriously begun to unravel.

    The American and French revolutions, for good and ill, had elevated the concept of the equality of all people, and the existence of rights inherent in even the most lowly peasant.

    The Christian religion had shattered into dozens of competing variants, and the endless wars of the doddering autocracies had shattered several of the remaining aristocratic regimes that had ruled the world for centuries.

    Into this turmoil, both cultural and spiritual, came a doctrine which seemed to draw together several disparate strands of modern western thought, and weave them together with some age-old hatreds and prejudices.

    Marxism was, and is, alluring because it is complete.

    Everything is explained, everything is accounted for, the criminal unfairness that allowed some to have while so many had not is exposed, the glorious future is prophesied.

    Generations of intellectuals, disgruntled youths, angry malcontents, starry-eyed secular saints, well intentioned dreamers, and those lean and hungry types the poet warns us about, all found something they could latch onto to give meaning and value to their assorted needs, desires, hatreds, illusions, visions, and ambitions.

    A Christian heresy, yes, and more—a faith that doesn’t just proselytize, but justifies the sword. No turning the other cheek, no meekness, only flaming grievances, and a blanket justification for whatever needed to be done.

    Whatever needed to be done.

    Luther’s famous difference with Catholic dogma was the belief that faith alone justified salvation. Marx and his disciples did indeed turn something on its head when he posited that salvation, utopia, justified anything required to achieve it.

    This was a faith that could not only move mountains, but create them from the bones of its enemies.

    What is the lure of collectivism, whatever the variation?

    In an intellectual and spiritual desert, it is a pool of cool water, an oasis which allows all the ancient hatreds and envies and covets to wash over and through the believer’s mind and soul.

    Redemption doesn’t require denial, but indulgence, not meekness, but action, not reverence, but smashing irreverence.

    And, in the end, the self dissolves in the loving mass of the collective. No more troublesome thoughts or doubts, no more worries, no more striving to be something, to live up to something, no more that terrible, endless struggle to be something, someone, distinct and individual.

    What is the lure? Nirvana in a factory, a communal field, a great hive of a city.

    Total belonging is an ancient dream, here dressed up in modern sounding rhetoric and calls to a higher morality, a higher consciousness.

    What would you give, to be one of the Chosen?

  • James Waterton

    Many a newspaper-reading progressive of those days were swayed because the information coming out of the USSR (and regurgitated by journalists) was one-sided propaganda – all glowing successes, and not a word on the purges, gulags, oppression, etc

    I’d argue that we’re seeing much the same phenomenon taking place today with China. Consider the fourth estate’s near uniform parrotting of China’s dodgy GDP figures, and the wholesale acceptance of Beijing’s propaganda regarding its stimulus package*, and how it delivered China from the GFC. Practically every mainstream western journalist who’s written about China regards this bilge as unquestionable fact.

    *money that was earmarked to be expended on infrastructure anyway, repackaged as a “stimulus” – and quite amazing how it somehow stimulated the economy before it had even been spent?

  • Robin JG

    Arthur Koestler’s book “The God that failed” subtitled as six studies in communism covers the conversion of people away from communisim and has some interesting insights. (it includes Stephen Spender and Adre Gide.)

    The Doris Lessing book that William mentions was the Golden Notebook, or at least she covers the same thing there.

  • pete

    I don’t think it is a mystery ‘why communism was able to appeal to some very smart people for so long.’

    Some smart people want to be obeyed because they think they know best and they are selfish. They’ll use any method they can to achieve this obedience – politicial ideology, religion, wealth, the cult of royalty or nobility etc.

    The current methods the clever and powerful are using to control us are high taxes to avert an eco-apocalypse and all kinds of suveillance to ensure our health and safety and freedom from terror.

    Anyone seen the report in today’s Mail about the pregnant woman reported to the social services by the police for having a home unfit for her baby because it didn’t have waallpaper on the walls? It’s all part of the same need for control that communism once was.

  • cjf

    I’ve created a long-term bunch of unhappies. Before I retired, in moments of “privacy” under so-called security cams, I managed to “moon” them, as well as doing other unsavory things that came to mind.

    Unidentified individuals have let me know how unhappy that made them. Other unidentified individuals expressed their respect. Takes all kinds.

    There are people who do “street theater” for spy cams.
    I’ve made myself a certificate of membership in the “Unpaid Actors’ Guild”. One member, no dues, fond memories.

  • RRS

    Disregarding semantics in the use of the word “Soviet”
    to describe the totalitarian hegemony that was the Central Committee, a more realistic view is not the “end” of an empire, but the stages in the development, extension and contraction of a hegemony.

    That hegemony has not yet failed totally, and while receding in degree of controls and influence over parts of its periphery, its sustaining force lies in its utility for maintaining centralized political power for a “ruling coalition.”

    The original reasons (and needs) for the hegemony in the southern and eastern marches are well known historically, as is the slow absorption of western forms of social organization, and the deficiencies of internal responses to internal problems.

    Those latter deficiencies apparently continue, but not quite at a level to disrupt the current coalition.

    The “end” is probably not in sight quite yet.

  • William H Stoddard

    Robin JG: Thanks. The Golden Notebook is almost certainly the book I was thinking of. I haven’t reread either book in a decade or more, so the various titles weren’t at the top of my brain.

    Lessing’s own political and philosophical ideas are largely dangerous nonsense. But her portrayal of the mental state of people who believe in those ideas seems very penetrating to me, and not least because it’s drawn with great sympathy.

    Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses. Well, in our age, state control seems to have become the opiate of the masses. And in this market, you have both the power-hungry exploiters who benefit from peddling the opium, and the deluded who buy it, at a greater cost than they know, because it gives them a sense of hope.

  • Paul Marks

    “was able to appeal to people”

    Why the past tense J.P.?

    Certainly the words “Marxism” and “Communism” have less appeal than they did. However, the basic Marxist doctrines (without the use of the word “Marxist”) are in the foundations of most of the stuff taught in schools and universities in most of the Western world – and in the mass media that this education system produces.

    Many years ago Ludwig Von Mises noted (repeatedly) how many times even enemies of Marxism de facto assumed the truth of various Marxist doctrines.

    Nor is this any great surprise as these doctrines (normally without the word Marxist) are to be found in the way most subjects are taught. Not just politics and sociology and history, but even subjects like medicine – the-true-cause-of-much-ill-health-is-inequality.

    And on and on.

  • “Marxist doctrines (without the use of the word “Marxist”) are in the foundations of most of the stuff taught in schools and universities…”

    Kindergartens and elementary schools can be added to that list – what do you want to be when you grow up little boy?

    – Policeman
    – Soldier
    – Fireman
    – Teacher
    – Doctor
    – Nurse
    – Mailman
    – Politician

    All jobs currently controlled by the modern state. I suppose something like “software developer” could be a bit of a reach for a four year old, but “cook”, “builder”, “shopkeeper”, “cleaner” are all just as easy – even “businessman” is fewer syllables than “politician”.