Monday, October 24, 2011

The Collapse of Western Communism

"Such people, such terrible people," she sobbed. "And that is the material out of which we must make the Revolution."

"There's good and there's bad in Revolution as in everything. The question is who will come out on top when the Revolution settles down, the honest people or the beasts..."

"Poverty, it appeared, was a most inappropriate godmother to a new world." From I Choose Freedom.

"If you believe, there is a god; If you don't, there isn't." Maxim Gorky from The Lower Depths.

I believe that a strong Israel is the best guarantee that peace will someday be possible in the Middle East. If Israel weakens, or is undermined in any serious way, what incentive will its neighbors have to someday end tensions and make a lasting peace with the Jewish people?

Ever since I was politically conscious, I have had a sympathetic view of the nation of Israel. My sympathy for Israel is predicated on the bellicosity of its neighbors but also on the history of the Jewish people, who have suffered frequently and grievously at the hands of non-Jewish Europeans. The holocaust was of course the ultimate expression of Europe's extraordinary capacity to inflict harm on a minority religion. But Russian history, including its tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet iterations, has witnessed countless episodes of egregiously bloody or vicious Anti-semitism.

Of course, my sympathy for Israel doesn't preclude sympathy for the Palestinian people. If European anti-Semitism made Israel necessary, local Arabs--not Europeans--were the ones who were forced to cede territory to the Zionist project, however legitimate that project was. So, although I continue to believe that a strong, secure Israel is a prerequisite for peace in the Middle East, I understand that the Palestinians have strong, legitimate claims against the Israeli state. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are entitled to civil rights, free economic development, and self-governance.

As the tide of world opinion continues to turn against Israel, I wonder about my support for Israel. Will history make my support for Israel seem ill-considered, ridiculous, or even immoral? Will Israel's sins in the West Bank and Gaza, sins related to colonization and police-state regulation, outweigh the sins of the terrorists and belligerent enemy states who oppose her? I continue to support Israel, but nervously, sometimes even guiltily.

By analogy, I think about how liberals and progressives in the 1940s and 1950s continued to support or excuse Soviet Communism in the face of overwhelming evidence of Stalin's brutality. Why were so many Western intellectuals sympathetic to the U.S.S.R. long after it became clear that the world's first socialist state was guilty of man-made famine, bloody purges, the gulag system, and a Nazi-Soviet diplomatic alliance? The answer, I think, is complex and multifaceted, but Western intellectuals generally believed that socialism was the best antidote to a wide variety of evils, including colonialism, militarism, unregulated capitalism, and fascism. They weren't always blind to the evils of Stalinism, but they assumed that the world's first workers' state needed to be protected against its enemies, its flaws overlooked. As the British journalist and Soviet sympathizer Walter Duranty famously said, "you must break a few eggs to make an omelet."

Opposing the sentiments of men like Walter Duranty were a small number of highly influential anti-Communist writers, many recent apostates from the quasi-religious socialist faith. John V. Fleming's beautifully written and exhaustively researched book describes four of the most important books in the under-appreciated canon of Western anti-communism. These books, which include Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Richard Krebs' Out of the Night, Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom, and of course Whitaker Chambers' Witness, help to explain how and why American and even French sympathy for the Soviet Union and its philosophical creed began to wane.

Koestler's book argued that Bolshevism was so inherently anti-humanistic that many of its chief theoreticians rated the Party as inherently more important than self-interest or indeed truth. An anti-Stalinist might be innocent of a specific criminal action against the state, but if he opposed the will of the Party, he was guilty of the larger crime of resisting human progress and the general course of history. In fact, even a loyal Bolshevik might be called upon to sacrifice himself for some broader Party goal, even if that goal was dimly comprehended.

Kravchenko's book, I Choose Freedom, was the autobiography of a Soviet official who defected from the Soviet Union while working as a trade official in Washington, D.C. The Ukrainian Kravchenko had lived through the entire Soviet experience and witnessed the worst aspects of the Soviet dictatorship first hand. His book is an indictment of Bolshevik politics as well as economics, and discusses collectivization, man-made famine, show trials and purges, economic inefficiency and chaos, ruthless Party discipline, and the overall transformation of Communist hope into dark Communist cynicism and despair. Amazingly, Kravchenko was forced to defend the very idea that Soviet Russia maintained prion labor camps in a French libel court. His victory in court--reinforced by a grudging $1 dollar fine to the Leftist French journal that attacked him--did at least give Gulag survivors the chance to testify about their experiences in open court.

The other two books in Fleming's wonderful book are Krebs' Out of the Night, which is an outrageously exciting if slightly fictionalized account of Communist as well as Nazi activities in the interwar years. Krebs' international adventures in communism revealed a highly unsympathetic and decidedly undemocratic German Communist Party, German Communist Party, and Comitern.

Fleming's greatest praise is reserved for Whitaker Chambers conversion narrative. Chambers, the famously controversial accuser of the allegedly communist state department official, Alger Hiss, was a disheveled, overweight, secretly bisexual, former communist spy. But he was also a brilliant and deeply learned writer. It seems hard to credit, but Fleming, a Princeton scholar of medieval literature, claims that Chambers' indictment of communism is a literary triumph on par with the greatest memoirs of all times, including St. Augustine's Confessions. I have yet to read Chambers' Witness to judge whether this is hyperbole or not. But it's certainly hard to understand how anybody connected with Richard Nixon might warrant a comparison with a Church father.

In the end, all of these books are worth reading, if only to remind us that there was a time when ordinary American and European intellectuals had to be convinced that Russian Communism was a positive menace to the most elementary forms of Western freedom. One wonders what, in our own time, is analogous to the war against communism.

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