Lying, the Essence of Communism
Moscow. “Here men determine what is true and what is false.”
“Yesterday I was lying. Today I’m telling the truth.”
Bo Arum, fight promoter
Communism, having entertained many suitors during the twentieth century, continues to be a romantic attraction in spite of all of the atrocities that Communists have committed and the ruin they have presided over. To comprehend how disastrous Communism has been in the course of the twentieth century and the boundless tragedy that has floated out of its wake, it is necessary to begin with the understanding that it is a system of belief and practices that is completely rooted in dishonesty. Communism is theoretically premised on a false notion of human perfectibility and limitless benevolence. Because human beings and their societies are not and can never be perfected, and because their benevolence will always be limited, the “new’ person predicted to emerge from a private-property-less society can and never will. From the false theoretical premise then, follows in the practice of Communism a result that completely belies the romantic image of the egalitarian society of abundance and harmony. One cannot practice Communism, that is, one cannot govern a Communist society, without constantly resorting to lies. To say this is simply to state a fact that can be amply verified and historically documented. Communism’s history in the twentieth century includes the multiple histories of its implementation and the vast apologetics of the chattering class that ignored, excused or justified its crimes and its abject failures. Communism was in place in many different places for decades. That history is one of broken promises and the inevitable and relentless lying that followed in the wake.
The twentieth century became Communism’s grand opportunity to achieve its goals, to move from aspiration to reality. Its theorists suddenly and unexpectedly turned into practitioners as they took power, in most places violently. They dismantled the old order and ruled for decades in many parts of the world and over two of the world’s largest, most populous countries. Communist governments and functionaries ordered and arranged the daily lives of tens of millions of people. They tolerated no political opposition or competition. They abolished the market, private property and profit-seeking, the principle sources in their view of human misery and inequality and replaced them with centrally planned systems.
Now we can look back, contemplate both their words and their deeds and note the staggering disparity. We can also see how many of the people who were forced to live under Communist governments reacted to them. As it was in Cuba and in East Berlin before the wall went up, whenever most people had the opportunity to choose, they fled. Many risked their lives to flee. They forsook their possessions, their families, their native lands to escape from the social equality promised by the “Peoples’ Democracies.” We can see that fraud, dishonesty and coercion were the central features of Communist rule – they lied and they lied repeatedly. They punished and ostracized people who told the truth. Where they are still in power they continue to lie and punish those who dare to speak the truth. If they told the truth they could no longer rule. And so it is good to begin by looking closely at the activity of lying which can us understand better the nature of Communism.
Honesty is and has always been the bedrock of human decency and goodness. No one can ever be good without being honest. A dishonest person cannot ever hope or claim to be decent. Dishonest people, no matter how talented, intelligent, high minded or greatly intentioned they may otherwise be, corrupt themselves, soil their surroundings, and ruin the lives of people close to them and often beyond.
Lies tear open holes in human relationships into which burrow copious forms of malignancy and perversity. Lies destroy the good things that take long, serious effort to build such as friendship, trust, cooperation and affection. Lies harden the hearts of the deceived and turn the willingness to forgive into grudging suspicion and implacable resentment. Liars are reluctantly if at all forgiven because any confession or apology itself may likely fall under suspicion as a lie or a pose. A plea of “I am sorry” from a habitual liar elicits from the petitioned rejection or cynicism, not forgiveness. Marital infidelity, a crooked business deal, the betrayal of a promise – with each, someone looks into the eyes of someone else who trusts them, then lies.
Truth remains forever intrinsically superior to falsity, a fact the underlying reality of which gives the formation and telling of the lie a paradoxical twist. The liar wants and needs to be taken as a truth-teller. The official Soviet news organ which for seven decades consistently lied and distorted about nearly everything the government did was called Pravda, the Russian word for “truth.” The lie succeeds only if it evades its essence and fronts itself as the truth. To be successful, that is to believed, a liar must be perceived to be the opposite of what he truly is. Yet, the liar cannot help but fear and shun the truth. He inevitably comes to the loath the truth-teller for being what he himself can never become and thus, the self-righteous indignation, the resort to defamation and vituperation that are the stock of the inveterate liar. The truth-teller becomes the object of fear and resentment because he threatens to expose and undo the liar. To be called a liar is a gross insult. To be exposed as a liar brings abject humiliation. So, the liar, knowing what exposure means to him, harbors malice toward truth-tellers, those he willfully impersonates, but those whose ranks he can never join. The liar, whose nemesis is the truth teller, turns into a hater and maligner as well. Communism’s long history of defamation and hatred comes from its lying and the natural fear and loathing of the liar for the truth teller.
The liar, however, like everyone deeply resents being lied to, another indication, ironically laden, that truth remains inherently superior to falsity. The liar will always demand the truth from others, but reserve for himself the advantages and flexibilities of deceit. [Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, New York, Pantheon, 1978, p. 23. “Liars share with those they deceive the desire not to be deceived.”] The liar himself will never cease to employ the opprobrium, “liar” even though he is one himself.
Lying is also a parasitic host for other vices. To a lying disposition many other character defects, failings, and corruptions are attached and feed off of it—cowardice, envy, greed, opportunism and arrogance. Lies advance the schemes of cheaters and smooth the way for the vengeful, the fakers, and shirkers of responsibility to have their way and to evade detection and condemnation. Lies are essential to the success of collusion, bribery, political corruption and tyranny. They are indispensible tools of criminals used to set up their victims and to shield their deviance from scrutiny. The child-seducer, the con artist, the fraudster, the swindler, the bribe-taker, the perjurer, all resort to lies in order to achieve their ends, to gratify gross impulses, to trample, to defile, to steal and to escape detection and rightful punishment. Lying is also closely linked with fanaticism because the fanatic subordinates everything, including a regard for facts and for truth, to the advancement of his cause.
Everyone lies sometimes. Most people, I believe, lie sparingly, reluctantly, with embarrassment, with fear of detection, and most are probably poor at it. Physiology, the blush, makes it especially hard for some. “Good lying” usually requires practice, although like many other human activities, some people are naturally better at it than others. Some even seem to be born liars.
Everyone at some point in their life has likely lied. Not everyone, however, is a liar. Some lies are benign. Some are even kind. Some are necessary. A liar, however, is different sort of creature, someone who has lying embedded firmly, deeply into his character. The confirmed, artful liar achieves his success and builds his life around lying. He cannot breathe without routinely mangling and twisting the truth. I have met and observed people like this, some in very high places. They are often intelligent, charming and even charismatic, but virtually everything they say in some way effaces the truth, distorts reality and deceives. Liars achieve success, that is, the lies they tell are taken to be true, and they are perceived as truth-tellers because most people operate on a daily course with the assumption and the trust that those around them are in fact truth tellers. Thus, one grimly contemplates and rues the opportunism and predation of the liar who takes full advantage of the natural and routine trust of others. All successful liars are in a sense “confidence men”, individuals who prevail in deceit because they usurp the trust and good faith of others and turn them into lamentable defects of good faith or lapses of judgment.
The real liar lies reflexively but with skill and audacity. He performs with ease, confidence, and at times evinces a self-righteous indignation to help sell his evasions and deflect scrutiny. Successful lying and the confidence that arises from it breed arrogance, and so sometimes the liar lies even when he does not need to, from habit, for practice or just for fun. The career of the accomplished liar often follows a trajectory of increasingly ambitious mendacity fueled from his growing confidence in his lying skills, his imagined superiority, and his disdain for those dupes who believe him. In contemplating such an individual over time one can observe a mounting arrogance, a personal recklessness and contempt for the boundaries of conduct that with most people are enforced by probity and integrity.
When liars, however, face exposure for what they are, they often turn emotional. Sometimes they go on the offensive. They fume with a feigned indignant posture. They accuse and malign those who have exposed them, more lying. Or, they resort to defense. Arrogance collapses into abject self-pity. They cry. They blubber. They talk incessantly as if the inflated verbiage they emit will undo the lies that have trapped them.
The liar’s exposure is two-layered: the fact that he lied, and the lie itself. To watch a liar exposed is a singularly pathetic and revolting experience. The character of the exposed liar open for inspection often reveals itself in its ruptured, conflicted state as he attempts at the same time both to deflect and bear responsibility. One then may likely hear, “I made mistakes” a complete and deliberate perversion of the term, continuing even in confession the liar’s resolute dishonesty with his evasion of responsibility. Lies are released intentionally while mistakes may be due to a myriad of factors such as carelessness, misperception, poor ability or lack of competence. Or, “mistakes were made”, the resort to the passive voice and the implicit denial of an intentional agent. One rarely hears a direct confession to a lie – “I lied about that” or, “I was a liar,” or, even less likely, “I am a liar.” You will never hear this from anyone. It seems easier for someone to admit to almost anything else, or confess to any other defect – “I cheated on my wife,” “I stole the money,” “I am an alcoholic,” than to confess to being a liar.
Honesty is also the bedrock of institutional and organizational decency and integrity. Institutions and organizations that are led by liars amplify and compound the personal dishonesty of the leaders and stamp it upon the operations. A large part of organizational success depends upon mutual trust both within the organization and in the external relationships. Lying breaks that down. Institutionalized lying pushes the institution into dysfunction, and sometimes into fatal pathologies. Institutional missions are eroded. The goals are compromised and the achievements are tainted or fail to materialize. The dishonesty leads to intrigue, creates layers of mistrust and openings for opportunism. Cynicism abounds.
Not surprisingly people who are lied to turn bitter and mistrustful. When lying becomes routine and expected, the purest, rawest cynicism inevitably follows in the wake. Cynicism is indiscriminate revenge taken against liars and institutions and practices that are immersed in lies. A lied-to-spouse may not just give up on the deceitful mate, but may turn against the institution of marriage. The lying spouse has injured his mate and soiled the institution. A cynic is one who has given up on the truth. He sees everyone as a liar, a fraud or a dupe. The cynic, unlike the skeptic, is a believer, but can only bring himself to believe the worst of others. The dupe’s failure is one of excessive credulity, an eagerness to believe a lie, a lack of critical judgment. The cynic’s failure is to give up on the possibilities of honesty and integrity, to needlessly concede the entire expanse of humanity to the liar and his dupes.
When fundamentally dishonest people acquire political power they usually do catastrophic damage. The history of the twentieth century is awash with depressing confirmation of this observation. The actual amount that they do depends upon the range of power they possess, the institutional and organization limitations that are in place and other external contingencies that may either limit or exacerbate the damage. Constitutional governments, with the limitations they place on the organs of power, generally do better at limiting or mitigating the damage that lying leaders do than authoritarian governments which are more vulnerable to the contingencies of personalized leadership and to the arrogance of power. The least distinguished of republican leaders, a Warren Harding or a Herbert Hoover is far superior to the widely admired and highly lauded Mao, Castro or Stalin. Charismatic, romantic leaders are always dangerous and should never be trusted. They almost always bring destruction and depredation because they tend to be arrogant, reckless and amoral. They become magnets for power and use that power to make sweeping, highly disruptive changes.
The philosopher, Karl Popper, has argued that the best way to think about how to build a good government is not to attempt to answer the question: who are the best people to rule? The better question to pose is: what kind of government best withstands leaders who are bad? “How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?” [Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies: the Spell of Plato, Princeton, 1966, v.1, 120] Popper came of age in Vienna during the early part of the twentieth century and was a perspicacious observer of the methods of both the Nazis and the Communists. He was initially drawn to Marxism, but came to reject it. He watched the Nazis and Communists up close in action, in competition with each other for followers. Popper’s profound insight, so obvious in a sense that it escapes almost everyone, turns on his observation that the “who should rule?” question is always the wrong one to ask and attempt to respond to. It is both prudent and realistic always to assume that leaders, like everyone else, are limited, fallible and open to corruption, and that all political leaders at times will often lie whenever it is expedient. Therefore the best way to reduce their lying and to limit the damages of the lies they do inevitably resort to is to keep them under constant vigilance, and more importantly, to limit their power. Lying is too pervasive a human vice and power is too enticing and alluring a good not to believe that those involved with getting and keeping power, even the purest and best-intentioned, will be sometimes be drawn into mendacity. No one with power should ever be completely trusted. Those with vast power will be the worst of liars: there is extensive historical confirmation for this prediction.
Politicians rightfully provoke harsh, unremitting cynicism from those whom they claim to serve, whose interests they represent and whose support they seek because political ambition and veracity are so often in conflict. Thus, politicians lie routinely and copiously. They tell lies, big and small. They tell them shamelessly. When they are come under scrutiny they shrug, they temporize, and they throw out diversions. They blame and defame their opponents and critics. Politicians frequently make promises that they know that they will not keep as the price they must pay to get the power they want. This is why no one in power should ever be completely believed or trusted and why individuals who are long time in power should be particularly regarded with suspicion. Power comes at a high cost. It is often paid through the forfeiture of honesty. No one who pays less than the slightest attention to the behavior and practices of political office seekers and political parties and groups would remark otherwise, and anyone who easily believes the promises and assurances of a political aspirant is a naïf or a fool.
In Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick writes of the final depressing days of the Soviet Union, a dying land where every piece of traditional life had been torn up and reconstructed by the “moral” engineers that composed the Bolshevik ruling class. All cultural endeavors and practices came to be manipulated and regulated by the Party ideologues. Art, music, science, philosophy and technology were sculpted into an integrated, comprehensive sphere of Bolshevik propaganda. Party hacks, sycophants, and mediocrities pushed aside and took the place of real artists, writers, scientists and philosophers. Independence of thought, integrity and probity could never be anything but an anathema to the ruling class. Reality was severely bent and distorted to mirror the Leninist fantasy of Communism’s superiority, and so the regime invested itself heavily in a systematic program of lies, manipulations and distortions.
The philosopher, Harry Frankfurt writes that “lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. So they are intended, in a very real way, to make us crazy.” [Harry Frankfurt, “On Truth, Lies, and Bullshit,” in The Philosophy of Deception, edited by Clancy Martin, New York: Oxford, 2009, 38] Lies were one of the few activities the Soviets chiefs excelled at from the very beginning, besting their ruling counterparts in the West who were boxed in by custom, law and constitutional restraints. They were master-designers of lies since lying was essential both to the acquisition and preservation of their power. Lenin’s highly successful mobilizing slogan in 1917, “All power to the Soviets” was an orchestrated deception for the outset. He never intended for the party to relinquish power to any independent governing body. The Stalinists were in effect engineers of collective dementia grounded in the pernicious ideology that was the source of their power and their claim for legitimacy. Soviet propaganda, writes Anne Applebaum, “was blared from radios and televisions, posted on walls, printed in newspapers, repeated at party and Komosol meetings. It was constant, it was repetitive, it was specific.” [Anne Applebaum, review of Children of the Gulag, by Cathy Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky in the New Republic, May 21, 2010, 4] These propaganda techniques were highly successful in rendering and sustaining for the millions of people subjected to it a highly damaged grasp of reality, one that did in fact result in a collective craziness.
From Remnick’s remarkable, sometimes comedic account one gathers that this country with its corrupt, moldering regime may have been the most cynical, morally desolate place ever on the planet. The glaring failure of the grand promises of Communism were increasingly obvious as they bumped into and crumbled against the stony reality of the inescapably dreary, hopeless daily lives of the people who were supposed to be contentedly ensconced in a socialist workers paradise. Here was a quotidian, cumulative repetition of little disappointments and pervasive incompetence – sour milk from the long waiting lines, new shoes that immediately fell to pieces, television sets that tended to explode, even when shut off -- steady and relentless misery. All of this was in the face of the growing recognition that life for the inhabitants of the decadent, cutthroat, vicious capitalist world was in fact gentler and better, much better. The shabbiness, boredom and emptiness of everyday life may well have been some of the major instigations of the ubiquitous alcoholism that scourged the Russian people and underscored the hopeless and dreary state of Communist existence.
Remnick captures for the reader the utter saturation of the Soviet citizens with a stultifying, corrosive and hopeless cynicism, the inevitable culmination of decades of forced participation in an elaborate institutionally sanctioned, bureaucratically maintained fraud. Here was a big, powerful nation with leaders whose names, statues and images were everywhere on ostentatious display. They trod imperiously across the geo-political landscape proclaiming the moral and economic superiority of their “system,” periodically announcing the sclerotic state and inevitable demise of the capitalist order. Yet the Soviet people for much of the twentieth century were forced to pretend to believe what everyone, including their leaders, eventually knew were lies. (“We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us.”) Alexander Solzhenitsyn in this Letter to Soviet Leaders in 1974 poured out his revulsion with this lying, corrupt regime. “This universal, obligatory, force-feeding with lies is now the most agonizing aspect of existence in our country – worse than all our material miseries, worse than any lack of civil liberties.” It is staggering to think of a society where the assault on the truth would have become universal and obligatory. Yet, it was so. The pervasive lying was the source of the internal moral rot that could not be reversed or even arrested and brought about the collapse of a system that was put into place by bold and confident men who had promised to transform the world, to remove the oppressors and exploiters and make life better for everyone. Solzhenitsyn was one of the heroic truth tellers of the century, the classic voice bravely announcing the nudity of The Emperor.