At the poster sale at the beginning of this semester, I found a picture of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Stalin dancing at a party sipping champagne. There was another nearby of Mao as a DJ in a birthday hat. A facsimile of a McCarthy-era toilet paper ad showed a grumpy Slav with the caption, “Is your washroom breeding Bolsheviks?” Just a floor below in the bookstore there’s a T-shirt —we’ve all seen it— “People’s Republic of Swarthmore,” complete with hammer and sickle. The merchandise is funny; I even bought one of the posters. But it reminded me that some at Swarthmore still take communism seriously, or at least don’t view it negatively.
Why is communism still “cool”— among people who otherwise talk of social justice and equality — when its history is fraught with crime, inhumanity, and violence? One answer is propaganda: Western sympathizers have tried to separate theoretical communism from its merciless doers. Another is fantasy: these ideas appeal to a utopianism that, though soaked with the blood of innocents, remains attractive. Unfortunately, the truth doesn’t conform to the excuses of backpedaling Marxists. Communism can’t be separated from the criminals who have acted in its name, and nourishing utopian dreams is a waste of time.
First let’s start with the bare facts. Just how bad is communism? It is, arguably, the most deadly ideology in history. Over and over again, communist regimes have crossed every line, violated every boundary, trampled on human dignity worldwide. Stalin presided over a vast network of slave labor, uprooted and nearly destroyed scores of cultures, slaughtered at least 20 million Soviets, and terrorized millions more. Mao and his wife assaulted Chinese society, chaining people to collective farms, murdering as many as 60 million Chinese. The list goes on: in Castro’s Cuba, repression rapidly became the norm; dissidents were arrested, tortured or executed, and the country is still replete with human rights abuses, scoring a paltry 170th out of 180 countries on the 2014 Press Freedom Index. East Germany’s Stasi was the Eastern Bloc’s most sophisticated engine of authoritarianism, infiltrating every aspect of private life, turning neighbors against one another, and seizing people in the middle of the night. China and Russia, Germany and Cuba, dozens of others: communist countries in all parts of the globe tend to become tyrannical nightmares.
This abysmal record started to become embarrassing for Western communists around mid-century. Marxist intellectuals have performed some impressive mental acrobatics in their effort to save communism’s reputation from its horrible practitioners. All kinds of excuses have been invented, for instance, to exculpate the ideology from Stalin, especially the canard that Stalinism was a perversion of the course Lenin had set. Until the last months of his conscious life, Lenin regarded Stalin as a trustworthy and like-minded friend. Stalin rose chiefly because he was a faithful student of the revolutionary. During his rule, he followed through on most of what Lenin wanted done, including collectivization, state-driven industrialization, and the subversion of western Europe. But even if we assume that Stalin didn’t represent “true communism,” Lenin’s actions were hardly less horrific. His policies were feared and hated across Russia. His secret police unleashed a terror over the country, murdering political opponents, “undesirable elements,” and ordinary people. There’s no escaping it: communist leaders have a habit of being evil.
If you free communism from the likes of Stalin, Lenin and Mao, claiming that the ideology was “hijacked” and that the mass murderers don’t represent you, then you might think peaceful communism is still possible. Unfortunately, there is no communism without oppression. At its core, utopian socialism tries to change man into a collective being, one who sacrifices individual desires for the sake of everyone else. But man has never been and never will be a collective being. When Stalinist and Maoist bureaucrats arrived at private farms with schemes to collectivize the countryside, they met vehement resistance. So the farmers were enslaved or shot. Human nature didn’t comply with the state’s wishes, so the state tortured it into compliance. Not all communist regimes are equally brutal, but all such regimes try to coerce people into artificial magnanimity.
I’m not even arguing against socialism as an economic system, although I completely disagree with it. The free market is far more fair and efficient, but 20th-century Marxism-Leninism was not an abject failure in material terms. Communist programs generally improved literacy rates, schooling, healthcare, and living standards. But these achievements were wrought at outrageous cost. When you want people to do something, but they refuse to do it, you have two options: forget the plan or force them. There’s no middle path, no way around. If you’re willing to accept that kind of savagery, say it and defend it. Otherwise, don’t believe in the myth that you can change the human condition.
With all the damning evidence in the open, some people still have a hard time letting go of communism. Even among those who admit it’s a moral catastrophe, there’s a sort of wistful remorse over it. I often hear the apologetic cliché that “communism works in theory but doesn’t work in practice.” But what does this actually mean? Almost anything can be sufficiently contorted to work in theory. If communism “should work” but is stopped by “human greed,” then I should be able to grow money on trees, but I’d be stopped by “reality.” When we grow up, we realize Santa Claus doesn’t exist. We’ve had an entire century to grow out of the fantasy that the path to communism can be peaceful. Indeed, the violent revolutions of the 20th century were responding to the inability of Marxist parties to peacefully take power through elections.
At Swarthmore, we talk incessantly about being offended. I’d think the hundreds of millions of people who lost loved ones to communist regimes would be offended by a comfortable Swarthmore student spouting communist rhetoric. As my mother grew up under communism, I wouldn’t be too happy about it myself. But then, there’s nothing wrong with printing a poster of Lenin and Mao in ridiculous outfits. Humor is the best way to discredit a bad idea. Communism isn’t cool — it’s nasty, stale and broke. Try something new.