No profound and popular movement in all history has taken place without its share of filth, without adventurers and rogues, without boastful and noisy elements... A ruling party inevitably attracts careerists.Vladimir Lenin, 1921
The Left’s most virulent incarnation is Communism. Wherever it has been put into place it has followed the same trajectory: a degenerative procession that moves from an original idealism to solipsism and finally descends into nihilism, a depressing amalgam of the purest cynicism and shameless, shoulder-shrugging corruption.
The noble aspiration of resisting and then defeating the forces of human oppression was the originating ideal of the theorists who conceived of Communism as both an historically inevitable human attainment – a classless society suitably ordered to bring out the best in all and satisfy the needs and wants of everyone – and a mobilizing social force that would act to free mankind from its long history of domination and exploitation. From division and bitter conflict, perfect harmony would emerge.
Contemplating the factories and slums in nineteenth-century England gave Karl Marx the material he needed to immortalize himself – to leave the world with Marx-ism, a contagious, sweeping view of the social world that both explained human misery and proposed its elimination. Marx the penurious philosopher became for his revolutionary progeny, Marx the Prophet, his work endowed with moral infallibility, assurance that however hard they had to be, all would be justified in the end.
With the industrial revolution unfolding and profoundly altering the social and political landscape of Europe, Marx believed he had isolated and identified the cause of misery and the instrument of human oppression – capitalism with its bourgeois overseers. As well, Marx discovered in these factories and slums that wasted, exploited underbelly of humanity that he made into the requisite theoretical antipode to the capitalist oppressor – the proletariat, a historically determined force of fury and rectification that would permanently remove the practitioners and beneficiaries of oppression.
The vast and powerful mobilizing appeal of Marx’s philosophical-historical labor came from the congealing of its confident predictions of historical and scientific inevitability with the moral outrage that naturally arose from the contemplation of human suffering and misery that was attributed to the greed and indifference of the exploiters whom he had unmasked. Marxism was at one and the same time, science and romance – knowledge harnessed to heroic action – “Arise…you have nothing to lose but your chains.”
What the theorists deeply coveted was power. The knowers possessed of real power would force the oppressor’s hand, turn the tables. The ideal would become real. Power would not be handed to them in spite of the compelling demonstration of the historical laws initially grasped by the theorists and the spectacle of human misery produced by the exploiters. It would have to be taken and by extreme force through a violent revolution that Marx and his followers would never cease to romanticize as the great and permanent historical solution to the deepest of moral problems – man’s inhumanity to man.
At the beginning of the twentieth century none of these ambitious theorists anywhere had power, but they would take it in countries large and small. One hundred years later when the 20th century was history it was obvious that the fruit of the massive power wielded by the proudest and most ambitious of the Communists Lords across the globe – Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot – was not, had never been, nor ever would be a classless society. They had profoundly changed the world, but not in the way they had promised. Communists wanted power to alleviate poverty and oppression and to eradicate every barrier of privilege that separates people into haves and have-nots . When they got it they turned their Party into a privileged clan, their lands into ghastly prisons and their people into paupers, slaves and corpses.
In power the Communist removed the capitalists even in places where there were none or very few, like China and Ethiopia. They did this on behalf of the proletariat, also in places where they were scarce. But it really did not matter. “Capitalist” and the “proletariat” were quite fluid, protean categories. The world they wanted to rule over simply had to be made up of oppressors and oppressed of some fundamental sort – landlords/peasants, colonialists/indigenous peoples, imperialists/conquered peoples. The essential task was to strip away the rationalizing mask of privilege and difference, identify the oppressors behind it, crush them and then make the world far better than it had ever been.
Communists in power excelled at the crushing part of the promise but never delivered on the humanitarian side of it. It was impossible, and all of the oppressed and exploited on whose behalf Communists took power witnessed the surreptitious transposition of its mobilizing ideals into stark betrayals of principle and purpose.
The Communist presentation of their new and wonderful society was no less than a solipsistic cocoon woven by its apologists who ignored or rationalized away every untoward intrusion of fact and reality. The solipsist believes that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing. Communism in power became that “Self” under its own constant modification preternaturally blind to the conspicuously brutal reality of its own failures, recognizing nothing but the invented glorious movement of its own journey to perfection.
The twentieth-century’s great Communist figures were themselves solipsists of sort. Leon Trotsky was said by a fellow revolutionary, Milovan Đilas, to be: “an excellent speaker, brilliant stylist and skilled polemicist, a man cultured and of excellent intelligence, was deficient in only one quality: sense of reality.”* Indeed. Convinced of his own omniscience, ensconced defiantly in his hermetic Marxist world, Trotsky spent his action-packed life using his formidable intelligence to bend reality through the prism of his own imagined perfect understanding of the world. Stalin, who turned himself into the God of the Communist world, was completely removed from the people living in workers’ paradise he was so busy making and extolling. He never visited any of the kolkhozy, the collective farms, inhabited by the tens of millions peasants he had brutally coerced into joining, spent no time with nor associated with factory workers. He never ventured to Ukraine in the early 1930s where he might have caught a glimpse of the families he had pushed to starvation, people driven by their savage hunger to insanity and cannibalism, individuals numbering in the millions. When his officers brought him bad news from the German front during World War II he often had them shot. He allowed no part of the world to intrude upon or disrupt the flow of his genius. Stalin’s entire working world was composed of himself and the conniving sycophants he retrieved from the dregs and cycled through his entourage, a grotesque, treacherous crew. Stalin trusted only himself. Being close to him was highly precarious and frequently lethal.
The perfection of the unreal “self” of Communism’s solipsistic stage culminates with the Cult of Personality, the elevation of a single individual, morally and cognitively complete, a ludicrous phantasm whose being becomes “the Revolution,” the full expression of the goodness and humanity that Communism had promised. The Self is complete. Nothing remains to be added – “Stalin the Great Teacher” for Russian Communism was both sufficient and necessary.
Communist solipsism gives way to nihilism. Nothing of the original ideal is left. The nihilism so conspicuous in the final days of the Soviet Union marked the final default of the ruling ideology and signaled the moral collapse of a society whose members no longer possessed any enduring principles and defensible ideas around which to organize and make sense of their daily lives.
In the “mature” Socialist Workers Paradise no longer does anyone pretend to believe in the system except out of fear. The ruled-over pretend to believe to avoid harassment and punishment, mainly to be left alone. The rulers also pretend to believe the lies because they know that their power is only sustained by the persistence of the lie. They too are afraid, afraid of the people they rule over. Everyone knows the truth and everyone knows that everyone else knows – mutual mistrust, suspicion and loathing flow.
And cynicism – the systematic, pervasive lying which sustains Communist regimes produces the purest, rawest cynicism. Cynicism is indiscriminate revenge taken against liars and institutions and practices that are immersed in lies. 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. He concedes the entire expanse of humanity to the liar and his dupes. There are no other categories to envision or employ. In the cynic’s world everyone is on his own – one does whatever one has to do. The person of integrity is a dupe and a loser; corruption rules.
Cynicism and corruption are the indelible marks of mature Communist regimes. Some, like the Soviet Union simply collapse – too sclerotic, too tired, to incompetent to continue. Others persist, their wily and intelligent leaders not willing to relinquish their power, able to adapt, reinvent themselves and keep the fiction working.
*Quoted from Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, A Reassessment, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008, 9.