Thursday, October 29, 2009
The Joy of Communism
Walter Laqueur has to be one of the best commentators on the Soviet Union who ever lived. His The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union is a small masterpiece. Take the book’s essay, Age of Enthusiasm. Here Laqueur reminds us that modern readers can hardly recall that Communism once represented some of the noblest ambitions the human race had ever harbored. In fact, Laqueur says, Communism emerged victorious in Russia less for tactical or strategic reasons—though Lenin was surely a shrewd political genius who exploited the power vacuum that emerged during the World War I—and more for moral reasons.
The Bolsheviks triumphed because they had a strong moral case, much more compelling that the case of any of their adversaries. They promised Russians what they needed: “land, bread, and peace,” as well as equity, social reform, land redistribution, and so on. Once in power, the Party succeeded in energizing young people on an unprecedented scale. While it’s true that the Cheka and other organs of oppression silenced internal dissent, especially among the older generations who Laqueuer says were never won over to Bolshevism, the experiment in socialism was embraced—enthusiastically—by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of young Russians who can only be compared to religious converts.
Party workers sincerely and zealously believed in Communism. They accepted the argument that atheism could do more for Russian peasants than Christianity had done in the previous centuries. They believed in progress and hoped for a better economy and more just social order in the years to come. Their optimism and self-sacrifice was ideological. Most lived frugally and gained few material rewards for their hard work and modest circumstances.
Swept up in a great cause, young Communists often committed heinous crimes against the civilian population. But their faith in a socialist utopia was genuine. They believed, Laqueuer says, in the perfectibility of humankind. It’s hard to believe, but in the early years of the Soviet Union the Party declared—with some degree of sincerity—that it had put an end to mental disease and halted all crime. Absurdly ambitious industrial production and harvest goals were modest by comparison with some of these social claims. The enthusiasm of the new Communist cohorts was reinforced (but also embodied) by Soviet films, poetry, songs, and official propaganda. The enthusiasm was also undergirded by comparisons with a decadent West, which seemed to be collapsing under the weight of economic problems that many thought inherent to capitalism.
Eventually, Laqueur argues, Communism enthusiasm faded, replaced by the discipline, cynicism, and bureaucratization engendered by Stalin, the secret police, and a command economy. By the end of the 1930s, the “heroic age” of Communism had come to an end.