What's Left

November 6, 2002

God, disaster, or an improvement on what came before, and followed?

By Stephen Gowans

There are no model societies. Never have been. Never will be.

Some have been better than others, but none have ever been completely free of excesses, abuses, corruption, bigotry, cruelty, inhumanity and plain stupidity.

And there's no society today that can't be made better. But perfect?

Any human enterprise is necessarily flawed.

Still, belief that a perfect society can be built stubbornly persists, and no greater hostility has been known than that of true believers whose God -- what they believed was the perfect society -- has failed.

In 1949 the CIA secretly sponsored the publishing of a collection of essays by ex-Communists, among them Arthur Koeslter and Ignacio Silone. The essays were a withering attack on Communism, a God that Koestler, Silone and others had embraced, but now rejected. The essay collection was called The God that Failed.

That Communism had been elevated to the status of a God was a mistake, and anyone naive enough to embrace it as such would soon be disappointed.

And the CIA was taking pains to ensure that Communism wouldn't be embraced, either as a God, or as something a little more within realm of possibility -- an attempt to build something more humane than capitalism, but inevitably flawed.

In the immediate post-War years Communism had a certain allure in Europe. The Soviet Union was widely admired. It had carried the greater part of the burden in defeating Hitler's forces. And Communists were often at the head of the resistance movements in occupied Europe, among the most tenacious and intrepid fighters.

And so it was that Communism was far from being regarded as a "disaster" as it's often called today, no more fervently than in the United States.

Trying to move Europe from a benign view of Communism to a totalitarian hostility, however, wasn't going to work. So the CIA did what any Judo adept would do -- it used its opponent's strength to steer it in another "safer" direction.

This was done by secretly backing, nurturing, sponsoring, and bankrolling what the CIA called the NCL, the non-Communist Left, mostly social democrats and democratic Socialists. They were given funding -- channelled through various front organizations and trusts -- for journals, magazines, newspapers, conferences, meetings, and political parties.

Books like The God that Failed were published, and acquired a prominence they may never have achieved otherwise. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 -- his critiques of Stalinism and totalitarianism -- were made into movies, the CIA secretly pulling the strings behind the scene, and insisting on changes that made the stories more congenial to the CIA's pro-capitalist views.

Meanwhile, the failures of Communism were harped on (as the failures of capitalism were harped on in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.)

In the end, under the weight of being continually molested from the moment of its birth by an implacably hostile United States, Soviet Communism collapsed, its own weaknesses contributing to its demise.

But was it a disaster, or was it a God whose legs were cut from underneath it?

It was neither.

It wasn't a God; its totalitarian character hardly recommended it as meriting worship.

But the charge that it was a disaster is no less simple-minded. For if it was a disaster, against what standard is it being measured?

Few serious commentators would contend that in material terms -- in access to jobs, education, healthcare, shelter, and food -- that the people of Russia and Eastern Europe would have been better off had the Bolshevik revolution never occurred. Communism achieved remarkable material gains, of a character and depth unprecedented in human history. In the space of a few decades, the Soviet Union went from being a backward, impoverished, largely peasant society, to an industrial giant whose citizens enjoyed a materially secure existence, and an admirable, though by no means perfect, egalitarianism.

And today, with Communism gone, it's what has followed in its stead that has become the disaster. Where once education at all levels was free, millions of kids don't go to school. Where once everyone had a job, millions of parents don't go to work. Where once government workers received regular paycheques, months go by without pay. Where once the healthcare system was robust, diseases once thought eradicated run rampant. Where once the economy produced a materially secure existence for all, economies have collapsed, and living standards for all but a few, have eroded. And where once life expectancy was on par with that of the world's richest countries, it has plummeted. If ever there were a disaster, it has been the return of former Communist countries to their accustomed position in the global capitalist economy -- on the fringes, firmly ensconced in the Third World.

So against what standard was Communism a disaster?

To those who lean to the political right, it was a disaster against what Western capitalist democracies are.

To some who count themselves among  the NCL, the same is true. The charms of America, and Britain, and France -- with their civil liberties and openness (in times other than crises), and their material comforts for some (but not all), are far more to their liking than what others considered the charms of Communism. This is usually true of those who live in the West and find themselves among the fortunate who don't have to worry about losing their job or source of income, or access to health care, or access to good schools for their children, or a clean, safe and affordable place to live.

To others,  Communism was a disaster as measured against a society that has never existed, a flawless society without inhumanity and cruelty and repression and bigotry; for Communist countries had their fair share of these horrors. But from this perspective, all societies, whether capitalist or communist or theocratic or whatever, must likewise be disasters. Yet tellingly, in the West, the opprobrium is reserved for Communist societies. It's rare that you'll hear a diatribe against Western capitalist democracies that put all down to absolute disasters or gross monstrosities.

This is doubly true in the United States where anti-Communism was once the official state religion, the church now entrusted, with the 1991 demise of Satan, to the NCL.

The US had the tiniest Communist party in the world, three-quarters of its members paid FBI informers, and yet the world's most ardent anti-Communist fanatics were concentrated in the 50 US states. There, they still reside, denouncing any proposal that is mildly progressive as "communist," beyond the pale, and surely a guaranteed path to disaster.

Maybe that's why America's NCL is so conspicuous in its embrace of anti-Communism. "No, no, no," they shout emphatically, "we're not about that." Some have websites on an "anti-Communist" web ring, where all sites proudly display an anti-Communist logo, a slash though the hammer and sickle, kind of a good housekeeping seal attesting to one's political  reliability. "You'll find none of that dangerous nonsense here," the logo says.

Others make sure to hurl the epithet "Stalinist" at anyone who hasn't denounced the former Soviet Union with sufficient fervor. There's a small NCL socialist group within Canada's social democratic NDP, that rails against the Communist Party of Canada for being a "Stalinist" outfit, this having something to do, as far as I can tell, with (a) history (yes, Canada's communists did support Stalin's Soviet Union) and (b) the party's "authoritarian" character. All of this seems to be a huge stretch. If the party's history condemns it to being called Stalinist forever, then anyone who lived in Germany during WW II can be called a Nazi forever. And while the democratic centralism of the party earns it the Stalinist charge, the accusers actively support a mainstream party that, like all mainstream parties, invests power in the leadership, and treats its members as foot soldiers, to do as they're told, and leave the leadership alone, a role all of the accusers welcome as NDP activists. Using the same reasoning, all Republicans should be shouted down as "Nixonists," and the Democratic Party shunned for its authoritarian internal structure.

Or is the Stalinist charge a reference to a presumed repudiation of multiparty democracy? Since Communist parties in Western Europe and North America long ago embraced "constitutionalism,' the idea that they would seek power through electoral means, and what's more, that the Communist Party regularly contests elections on a socialist platform, something the NCL group doesn't do, one can only wonder: Is this a serious charge, or is it gratuitous -- and cowardly -- name-calling?

As far as I know there's no such thing as an anti-American web ring, whose websites proudly proclaim their adamantine opposition to America, with logos featuring a slash through an American flag, nor regular denunciations of America as a disaster -  though it surely has been a disaster for its Indians, victims of ethnic cleansing and a Holocaust; a disaster for blacks abducted from Africa and pressed into slavery, whose descendants lived with official segregation, and now live with racial discrimination and racial profiling; a disaster for the 80 million Americans who live without adequate or with no healthcare because they can't afford it; a disaster for the millions who live in slums, in poverty every bit as squalid as the Third World in a country, that is the richest in history; a disaster for the millions forced to endure repeated periods of unemployment, economic hardship and uncertainty; a disaster for hundreds of thousands thrown into prisons, in a country with the greatest per capita incarceration rate in the world; a disaster for millions upon millions of mostly poor people in other countries who have been terrorized, bombed to death, assassinated and disabled by an American military juggernaut and its proxies pushed into action by an aggressive foreign policy that crushes any movement that seeks to offer relief from the depredations of capitalism; and a disaster for billions of the world's poorest who sink ever further into poverty under the cruel weight of the US dominated IMF and World Bank. Were America's NCL as enthusiastic in its criticism of a regime that flourishes today as it is in calumniating a Soviet Communism that collapsed over a decade ago, we might get somewhere.

Communism wasn't a God that failed. It was a human enterprise that some naively thought was a God, only to later fall into an apostasy, as they were destined to, when the scales inevitably fell from their eyes. So Communists weren't Gods after all, but human beings, flawed, given to missteps, and prone to error, some heinous and unforgivable. Communism could never live up to the standards of perfection its spurned lovers demanded. With their empty hearts, they sit dreaming of the flawless lover, who never comes, and never will. But always they hope. Maybe someday. Maybe someday.

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