Reflections on Communism
On Tuesday, the Victims of Communism Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC. Communism was the 20th century's most murderous totalitarian ideology, claiming the lives of at least 70 million people (The Black Book of Communism estimates the total number of victims as 100 million). Thankfully, it is today all but a memory, surviving only in Cuba and North Korea. China, while retaining a Leninist political regime, cannot really be considered Communist in terms of its socio-economic structure.
In a recent article for the New Statesman, distinguished historian Robert Service reminds us what all Communist regimes had in common:
In doing the research for my book Comrades: A World History of Communism, I tried to find whether there was a basic pattern to the regimes that resulted. The conclusion was a stark one. In all cases of durable state communism, there was some approximation to the Soviet "model". A single party kept itself in power without concern for electoral mandate. A nomenklatura system of personnel appointment was introduced. Religion was harassed. National traditions were emasculated. The rule of law was flouted. The political police was ubiquitous and ruthless; labour camps were established. Foreign travel permits were made hard to come by. Radio and TV broadcasts from abroad were banned. A prim public culture was installed.
This was the pattern despite the many national differences. Popular music in Cuba remained lively and beautiful even though its exponents could not take themselves and their instruments to other countries. In Poland, the Catholic Church was allowed to function in the open. In China, there was some pride - except during the cultural revolution of the late 1960s - in those emperors who had governed a unified nation.
For pointing this out in his recent book, Mr. Service has been dubbed a "neocon" by certain left-wing British commenters. Apparently, "neocon" has now replaced "fascist" as the left's favorite meaningless catch-all term of abuse. Service responds to his critics in the New Statesman essay, by reminding them that it was freedom, especially free expression, that enabled the West to consign the Soviet empire to the ash heap of history where it belonged:
The reasons for this have long been obvious. Liberal democracies, despite all their faults, have lots of advantages. They have a pluralist culture and free media. They have an independent judiciary. They allow competition among political parties. Such features provide mechanisms for the correction of abuse that were largely absent under communist rule. The result is that such democracies have possessed more orderly societies than communist ones. Work discipline was generally poor under communism. Apathy about politics was widespread. Bureaucratic ineffectiveness was rampant.
What is more, it was no coincidence that durable communist states maintained a heavy load of repression. Millions of citizens always wanted things that incurred official disapproval. They hated the disrespect for national traditions, culture and religion; they were attracted by non-communist ideologies. In order to hold on to power, the communists used the secret police and labour camps. Some leaderships were more brutal than others. Life was different under Brezhnev and Andropov from what it had been under Stalin. And Cuba has held a smaller number of political prisoners as a proportion of its population than was true of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, all communist states were dictatorial, and it was no coincidence that they practised radio and TV jamming and made it difficult for their peoples to travel abroad.
The proof of the pudding came in 1989-91 in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The old cultural and political controls were loosened. Free public discussion and organisation were permitted, and in country after country there emerged a challenge to the ruling nomenklatura. Wherever contestable elections were held, the state order of communism fell apart.
In short, intellectual freedom is anathema to totalitarian Communist regimes. This is why the Cuban dictatorship feels compelled to imprison independent librarians and other dissidents. Once the Castro regime loses its monopoly on the free expression of ideas, it too is doomed.