“Two guys are walking down the street in Soviet Russia, amidst the poverty, hunger, and desperation, and one guy turns to the other guy and says ‘so is this it? Is this full communism? Is this really all there is to offer?’ And the other guy says, ‘oh heavens no, it’s going to get much worse.’” – an oft-told joke by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
November 7th, 2017 marked the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik takeover of Petrograd and the birth of Communist rule in Russia and beyond. No doubt many Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyites, Maoists and others holding socialist convictions toasted the centennial, perhaps with a glass of vodka. Unless they went on a prolonged binge, however, it’s unlikely they were still celebrating two days later on November 9th, the 28th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The former event ushered in over seven decades of Communist rule in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and imposition of the ideology, in varying forms and degrees, on the lives of billions in other countries around the world. Although a precise count is impossible, it is estimated that Communism was directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 million people in the 20th century, four times the 25 million deaths attributed to Nazi fascism.
The latter event was a climactic moment in the 1989 collapse of Communism in Europe; it triggered the migration of over three million refugees out of the impoverished East German police state into the relative freedom and prosperity of the West in a matter of days, the subsequent liberation of the Baltic States, and, ultimately, the fall of the Soviet Union.
Yet three decades later, despite its singular economic failure in the Soviet Union and its blood-stained reputation everywhere, Communism is far from dead in the world. The Communist Party rules over 1.4 billion people in the People’s Republic of China. One-party variants control North Korea, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Venezuela is a Communist dictatorship in all but name. At least seven other countries define themselves as socialist states including India. Countless more national and sub-national governments and mainstream political parties identify as socialist.
In the nominally capitalist, liberal democratic countries of the western developed world, legions of politicians, public intellectuals and pop culture celebrities still champion centrally-planned statist economic and social policies over free markets, small, decentralized government, and individual freedom and responsibility. Professors of the Humanities still teach generations of students that Communism and socialism are flawless in design and flawed only in implementation, which is probably why posterized portraits of the eternally hip and handsome Latin American revolutionary Communist leader Che Guevera still adorn the walls of student dormitories on North American college campuses, and the Irish postal service recently issued a commemorative stamp to honour the 50th anniversary of murderous guerrilla’s death.
Just don’t call it Communism
At the height of the Cold War and especially following the embarrassing crash of Soviet Communism, the indefatigable members of the Karl Marx fan club avoided the C word. It was a small semantic sacrifice to agree with the great Nobel-winning playwright and fascism apologist George Bernard Shaw and his insouciant observation that socialism is the same as Communism, only better English. Certainly easier than agreeing with Ayn Rand, who contended that the key difference between the two ideologies is that Communism seeks to enslave men by force, whereas socialism conspires to enslave men by the vote.
To be fair, socialism is to Communism as a shotgun is to a Kalashnikov; dangerous, but generally not as lethal to economies and freedom. It really depends whose finger is on the trigger. Soviet Communist dictator Joseph Stalin was a particularly accomplished mass murderer. According to Alberta socialist Premier Rachel Notley’s November 21st statement marking the Ukrainian Holodomor, Stalin’s “state-induced famine killed 10 million people in just two years. At the height of the genocide, the toll was 25,000 people a day.”
Stalin’s brand is so tarnished that hardly any western socialists stand up for him anymore. They still have a soft spot for China’s founding Communist dictator Mao Zedong though. So much so that the Canadian socialist authors and 50,000 (and counting) signatories to the 2015 Leap Manifesto calling for radical state intervention to end poverty, stop climate change, and expand Indigenous rights felt no compunction about naming their Manifesto after Mao’s Great Leap Forward – the four-year push for economic modernization and industrialization from 1958-62 that forcibly collectivized food production and caused a famine that killed tens of millions.
Though its two-to-three million body count was paltry by comparison, the secular Communist utopia inflicted on Cambodia by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s was perhaps the most unabashedly murderous of the lot. It has few modern apologists, with the possible exception of Noam Chomsky, but every contemporary leftist who seeks to defame and erase history and stifle public debate in the name of social justice owes a debt to the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Modern so-called “cultural Marxists” are descendants of this particular Communist tradition. They deconstruct cultural norms by discrediting history as “colonial oppression”, and push race- and gender-based grievance narratives and entitlement demands. Far from being cast into “the dustbin of history,” as the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan wished for Communism, this strain of Marxist dogma is deeply ingrained in “progressive” political activism, the academic, media and arts intelligentsia, and government bureaucracy.
The phenomenon is exquisitely illustrated by the current debate over free speech at Wilfred Laurier University. After 22-year-old teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd showed her class a video clip of a debate over genderless pronouns involving University of Toronto psychology professor and anti-Marxist crusader Jordan Peterson, a student anonymously complained that Shepherd had exposed the class to hateful “transphobic” material. University officials subsequently chastised and sanctioned her, which provoked sympathizers to hold a free speech rally. That, in turn, prompted a campus group called the Revolutionary Student Movement to threaten a counter-demonstration. In a statement, the group said “transphobia is a subset of patriarchy in Capitalist society”, adding that “the oppression of the non-binary, the trans-community, and those who do not subscribe to the gender norms of society, occurs because it fuels the money system of capitalism.”
Campus totalitarians aren’t usually this open about their Communist ideology, but the fact that Laurier’s administration and the Revolutionary Student Movement were on the same page raises some key questions: Is our education system responsible for the persistent influence of Communism in western culture? And why does it not teach that Communism has been at least as destructive as fascism?
The left is never wrong
The answer probably lies in the strain of western liberalism that dates to at least the French Revolution. “Pas d’ennemi à gauche” – no enemies on the left, only on the right – has been used ever since by leftists of all persuasions to justify the persecution of anyone who stands in the way of equality absolutism.
Stephen Kotkin, professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University, noted in a recent op-ed about the 1917 Revolution that many western liberals were genuinely horrified as evidence of Communist crimes against humanity piled up over the decades. But instead of repudiating the ideology, they just got better at rationalizing it. Thus the Soviet Union became a “deformation of socialism,” attributed to the inherent backwardness of the Russia peasantry. If the illiterate masses had been able to read Marx, they would have known that he did not advocate the use of secret police, deportation by cattle car, and mass murder-by-starvation to enforce collective farming, and refused to go along with it.
In another conservative reflection on the anniversary, National Review writer Douglas Murray made a similar point about the intellectual gymnastics performed by modern progressives to excuse Communism: “The problem is never the dish. The problem is that the dish has just not yet been perfectly served.”
This argument is so persuasive, and pervasive, it has succeeded in enabling recent electoral successes by far-left politicians in many western countries. Among its beneficiaries are U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who was astonishingly competitive in last year’s race for the Democratic presidential nomination, despite his open, lifelong disdain for the capitalist system.
Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom and as far left a political leader as Britain has seen in many decades, ran on an undisguised platform of economic nationalization and 1960s-style socialism and was rewarded with dramatic gains in Parliament last spring. Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell once quoted Chairman Mao’s “Red Book” in Parliament to give the ruling Conservatives a lesson in economics.
New York City, effectively the global capital of capitalism, re-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio by a 2-1 margin over his nearest competitor this month. Just as the abolition of private property was job one for Marx, de Blasio believes private property is the primary obstacle to economic progress. He recently opined that, if he could, “the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents.” He also believes his fellow Americans “would love to have a very, very powerful government, including a federal government, involved in directly addressing their day-to-day reality.”
In Canada, sympathy for Communism starts right at the top. Last year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked the passing of lifelong Trudeau family friend and Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro by ignoring decades of political repression and economic stagnation under his authoritarian regime and instead calling him a “remarkable leader” who showed “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people” and “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.”
Trudeau, whose father famously was the first western leader to establish diplomatic relations with China – at the height of the Cultural Revolution when millions were being persecuted and killed to enforce Communist orthodoxy – is now ardently pursuing a free trade agreement with “modern” Communist China. When asked in 2013 which country he most admired, Trudeau named China “because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say we need to go green, we need to start, you know, investing in solar.”
Marxism for Millennials
Two years later, Canadians elected Trudeau’s majority Liberal government. The victory was largely attributed to a huge surge in the Millennial vote. This is my generation, which in my high school (in Alberta) social studies unit on “ideologies” learned that fascism is genocidal and Communism is egalitarian.
The lessons were similar in university, but less subtle. For example, I vividly recall one professor in an undergraduate course musing excitedly about the growing prospects of Maoist political movements in India. Most of my classmates, wholly ignorant of the link between Maoism and mass murder, nodded in slack-jawed agreement. Another prof, imparting her wisdom about the politics of developing countries, made no effort to disguise her contempt for capitalism and her affection for Communism; she even wore a beige Trotsky tunic during her lectures.
It is small wonder, then, a 2014 Reason Foundation poll found that 42 percent of U.S. Millennials, aged 18-29, think socialism is preferable to capitalism, although only 16 percent could accurately define socialism.
More recently, the research firm Survation conducted a poll of young Britons aged 16-24. Respondents were asked to look at a list of names and say which ones they most associated with “crimes against humanity.” Hitler ranked first, at 87 percent, which is comforting. But Stalin only ranked third at 61 percent, fourteen points behind Saddam Hussein, and 28 percent said they had never even heard of the Soviet tyrant. Mao and Pol Pot came in at 20 and 19 percent, respectively, but twice as many respondents thought former U.S. President George W. Bush was a worse criminal against humanity.
It is not that the British education system failed to provide students with accurate (or any) mortality data associated with history’s greatest Communist killers. It is that the system failed to teach them anything at all about some of them: No less than 70 percent of respondents said they had never heard of Chairman Mao, while 72 percent didn’t know Pol Pot from a long-handled cooking device.
This is intergenerational ignorance, passed on from teachers to students via a cycle of mis- and disinformation now spanning several decades. It will not be easily dislodged from the faculties and bureaucracies of education that pipeline it into pre- and post-secondary classrooms.
Although they are closely regulated by the progressive diktats of union-approved curricula, there are plenty of teachers and professors who want to expose their students to the whole, accurate story of Communism. Although it would be subversive and risky for them to do so, they might consider teaching resources like The Black Book of Communism, a history of communist atrocities assembled by European and American academics in 1997. It is the authoritative source of the Communist body count as of that year, when the “human cost of genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, and artificial famines stood at over 94 million.”
Teachers seeking to make some small effort to set the record straight might also look for information and inspiration from the Duranty Awards. Named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and “useful idiot” Walter Duranty, whose dispatches from the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s reliably ignored Stalin’s reign of terror, the Awards recognize and highlight “films, actors, actresses, and directors that distort the history of socialism, communism and the Cold War.”
Marian Tupy, in an ode to Soviet centennial published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, wrote that “no matter where it was tried, Communism has always resulted in mountains of dead bodies. As for socialist economics, it has always resulted in shortages, inefficiency, poverty, and desperation. The verdict of history is clear, but only if people are willing to see it.”
If you are social studies teacher or a professor in the Humanities who cares about truth, fairness and balance, not to mention freedom and democracy, consider sharing that quote with your students this month to mark the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.