Saturday, March 10, 2012

Communism: The Best Kept Secret

The totalitarian movements have been called ‘secret societies established in broad daylight. ’              
                                                                          Hannah Arendt

One of the hallmarks of Communist practice, that is, what Communists always do when they are in power is to authorize and document their decisions and actions in secret. Secrecy rules: their centers of power are mysterious – remote, inaccessible, protected from outside scrutiny, protean. The policies they create and apply are arbitrary and opaque.
This penchant for secrecy underscores the fact that dishonesty resides at the heart of Communist rule.  Communists are now and always have been monumental liars. They lie to get power. They lie to keep it and they lie about what they do to keep it.  When they hold power their operations embody what is the opposite of what we today call “transparency.” Secrecy and opacity are necessary elements of their self-preservation.  
A liar’s risk of exposure runs much higher if he must perform in a milieu where logic and empirical reality have some basic hold on serious discussion and communication.  Thus, Communist organs of power must be relentlessly secretive in order to preserve the ideological fictions of legitimacy and protect the power-holders and decision makers from the consequences of failure.  Secrecy protects the liars; those who attempt to penetrate it and to know and tell the truth become targets of systematic abuse.  Depending on how morally debased the regime is and how seriously threatened they feel that abuse ranges from slander and character assassination to physical destruction. 
The Soviet officials’ Central Office of Statistics we now know kept two separate and distinct sets of demographic statistics, one for internal use the other for publication.*  Demography measures the essential activities of people, and the practical effect of Communism tends to reduce what demographers measure: in short, Communist rule physically diminishes people and their activities, a sort of living death. They live shorter lives, produce less, have less and reproduce less.  Under Stalin, demography was a hazardous occupation. The secret, true statistics could never be publicized or shared because what they revealed contradicted the official claims of the regime and established its incompetence and failure.    
Hannah Arendt notes in her study of the Stalinist apparatus in The Origins of Totalitarianism, that there were three separate apparati in the Soviet system: The party; the soviet or state appartat; and the NKVD, that is, the secret police that did Stalin’s bidding.+  However, she makes the important point that the more visible the agencies were, the less real power they actually had—the secret agencies such as the NKVD were the real power centers, hence the secret police-state fundamental nature of this regime. “Real power begins where secrecy begins.”+ The “real power” is unlimited power. Police who are secret are unconstrained by law which means that they can do whatever the leaders want them to do to the people they are supposed to protect.
 Stalin also created extensive and obscure labyrinths of bureaucracy in order to occlude the paths of decision-making and deflect the application of accountability. “The multiplication of offices destroys all sense of responsibility and competence…”+ The organ of the secret police combined the two essential elements of Communist rule, coercion and dishonesty. Secret police are a ubiquitous feature of Communist governments and are a necessary and inevitable result of the regime’s need to shield the operations of the ruling elite from public view.
East Germany’s Stasi, built by Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker may have been the most ubiquitous secret police force ever assembled.  It numbered 91,000 by 1989 compared with Hitler’s Gestapo of 7,000 in 1937. There was one full-time Stasi employee for every 180 East Germans.# The East German Party leaders not only produced the typical propaganda of Communism’s vast superiority and inevitable triumph, but it directed massive amounts of its human resources to prevent the East German people from knowing the truth and to punish those who might attempt to speak it.
          The need for secrecy in the Communist dictatorships would eventually take a toll. What is secret cannot be communicated and the absence of trust worthy communication makes effective decision-making difficult. Of the Post WWII, Eastern European communist states, Stephen Kotkin writes.  “[T]he Communist establishments were often incoherent, riven by turf wars and hyper-secrecy.  Decision making remained a black box even within the upper echelons, while wiretapping and informing were so widespread that elites often hesitated to socialize.”#  
Secrecy and the collateral suspicion made it hard even for the elites to manage and govern.  When no one can tell the truth, or when the truth simply becomes the official propaganda pronouncement of the moment eventually no one can trust anyone. Suspenseful anticipation of the next propaganda shift saps energy and exhausts resources.
The secrecy and dishonesty necessary to perpetuate Communist rule mean that enormous resources must be concentrated on coordinating the constant production of lies, a challenging task because each one of the many lies has a limited and uncertain durability and an unpredictable time-span span of utility.  Since the lies are in conflict with reality, but at the same time crafted and launched to represent reality, they are inevitably tested against reality – which unfolds often in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways – by the lied-to.  The lie must compete with the truth, and even though the competition is blunted by the secretive, coercive party organs, still the lie is at a disadvantage with the truth.  Once launched, the lie at some point falls under scrutiny and invites detection.  The liar, of course, has an investment in the lie, a practical investment with some gain or advantage to be anticipated. The more ambitious the lie, the more is at stake for the liar if the lie gets exposed.  For governments that are built on lies, of course, the investment in them is huge and what is at stake is their existence.  This explains why Communist governments have never been able to continue to function without massive and unrelenting coercion. Communists govern not only in opposition to their own people but against the truth – a perpetual war on two fronts which takes a toll.
Once the coercion is relaxed, the institutionalized lies, long privately doubted, can be publically contested and repudiated as they were all across Eastern and Central Europe in 1989-1991.  Once the lies are openly acknowledged and impossible to uphold, the leaders have nothing left to offer and no authority to govern.  Cynicism and resentment fill the void. They must either resort to force or quit.
The constant lies that were so successful for a good part of the twentieth century in perpetuating the delusion of Communist inevitability and superiority finally no longer convinced even many of those who ruled under its auspices. Secrecy even at is best is porous, fragile and unstable.  Once the secrets lost their coercive protection, disillusionment with Communism set in even in Western Europe where it was popular with the intellectuals.
The Italian Communist Party (PCI), muscular and confident at the end of WWII, by the 1970s had jettisoned its Leninist revolutionary purism in order to pursue power-sharing coalitions with non-Communist parties.  By the late 1980s its membership was in severe decline and the CPI was about little more than a refuge for ersatz revolutionaries.  Similarly the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1946 received 28% of the vote in the national elections. Though bitterly clinging more rigidly and desperately to its doctrinal purity than the Italians, by the late 1980s the PCF had become politically marginal and irrelevant to practical French politics.**   Communism without coercion cannot be sustained. 
The grim, anhedonic Communism that Mao and his Red Guard had imposed on the Chinese gave way to a full embrace of Western-style consumerism. The ugly, unisex Mao suits were finally abandoned.  Thirty years after Mao’s death Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wall Mart and shopping malls began to decorate the Communist Chinese landscape with Mercedes and Lexis autos filling the streets of Beijing and Shanghai.  Starbucks coffee could be purchased at the Great Wall.
The decades-long practice of Communism in large portions of the planet had finally in spite of the torrent of lies, the propaganda and the corruption, revealed the inanity of the theory and the failure of its practice. The satellites of the Soviet Communism Empire rebelled; in Russia the system simply collapsed.  The Chinese Communist overlords opted for schizophrenia.  They tolerated even encouraged capitalist economic practices while still talking like old guard Leninists and monopolizing political power as Leninists always do.  The archives are still closed, the crimes of the Moa era still to be kept secret from the Chinese people. 
Mao remains for his people the revered founder of modern China.  However, the murderous historical reality of his career was horrendous and intrusive enough to force even the ruling elite to the coining of a euphemism that hinted at least hinted at some imperfection in the rule of the Great Oarsman: “Mao was 70% good, 30% bad.”  The Cultural Revolution is now a collective memory of a disagreeable sort and as the vapors of Maoist fanaticism dissipated, chicken McNuggets, burgers and fries from Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds would be clasped in the hands of the youth instead of the Little Red Book.  During the 13th Party Congress in 1987 the CCP formally changed the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat,” to “people’s democratic dictatorship,” a contradiction or nonsense-phrase that one would usually only associate with mentally ill people or advertising executives.              

*Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: the History of China’s most Devastating Catastrophe, 158-162, New York 2010, 325

+Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York, 1976, 402, 403, 409

#Stephen Kotkin, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, New York, 2009, 53, 13

** Zbigniew Brezezinski, The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century, Charles Schribner’s Son, New York, 1989 , 205-06

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