Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Saints, Rituals, Liturgies, and Heretics

Patrick Rotman's 1999 documentary, Faith of the Century: A History of Communism, is a wonderful testimony to the transnational appeal of the Russian Revolution. As the title suggests, Rotman describes twentieth century communism as a great religious movement, akin to the explosive early moments of the Christian, Islamic, or Mormon religions. Communism had its own saints, rituals, symbols, liturgies, heretics, schismatics, pilgrimages, and dogmas. And like other great religions, its message of freedom transcended all international boundaries by promising hope and salvation. The Bolshevik Revolution, for all its faults, became a beacon of hope to people throughout Europe and the developing world.

The communist faith threatened to overtake Germany, Hungary, and other nations in the interwar era, and yet ultimately the Soviet Union was left alone before World War II to guard Marx's inheritance in the face of capitalist encirclement. Building "socialism in one country," Stalin stunned the world with collectivization, urbanization, and industrialization. To the faithful, he seemed to have overcome some of the basic problems of capitalism, including inequality, exploitation, unemployment, lack of economic planning and coordination, and boom and bust cycles.

The Soviet Union in the 1930s built gigantic projects and promoted itself as a paragon of public hygiene, military strength, worker volunteerism, and public enthusiasm. It also promoted working class people into the upper echelons of society. Its support of the beleaguered Spanish communists proved particularly attractive to left-wing and moderate Western Europeans, who little suspected that Stalin was capable of eliminating anarchist allies and ultimately signing a non-aggression pact with Franco's fascist ally, the Nazi Germany. The chief message of Faith of the Century is that communism was never limited to the Soviet Union. In fact, communism might have triumphed in the heart of what came to be seen as the democratic West, France.

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