Weekly Commentary — Reflections on the Fall
The Bengalis, my mother’s people, have a saying: “Anyone who isn’t a Communist at twenty has no heart. Anyone who still is a Communist at forty has no brain.” Unpleasantly redolent of the complacency of age, of the status quo, and of capitalism as it is, it is still worth considering.
I was twenty when the Berlin Wall fell.
I was in the middle of a brief flirtation with anarchism at the time, brought on by my first reading of Chomsky. Like many young leftists, I found it liberating. “Actually existing” communism had produced societies that were nightmares of stultification; the Warsaw Pact countries had no trace of romance or revolution to leaven the image of dull gray lives led by dull gray people, made that way by a dull gray system.
At the time, we were mystified by the anger and despair of the older generation; to us, it betokened a kind of totemic identification with societies and systems because of past connections and reflexive verbal associations with terms like “socialism” and “collective.”
Surely, these countries had no more to do with “real” socialism than Stalin did with “real” Bolshevism — or the Holocaust and the Inquisition with “real” Christianity? The dethroning of Erich Honecker or Todor Zhivkov didn’t change the inherent evils of capitalism and imperialism or the importance of a real alternative.
No sooner were such thoughts formulated, of course, than they were drowned in a welter of Western triumphalism. In some ways, perhaps the older generation was wiser; they saw that, rather than a blow for human freedom, the fall of communism would be a loss for one side and a victory for the other. Many of them even realized that the dissociation of “actual” socialism from “real” socialism — that Platonic ideal form — was a little too facile.
We have now lived through twenty years — my entire adult life — of a world with, as Margaret Thatcher correctly pointed out, no alternatives. We have seen the results. The monstrous tragedies of communism that billions lived through became for the United States nothing more than retrospective justification for its own crimes and follies and cheap fodder for a new global offensive, this one unchecked by the existence of another pole, ideological, political, or military.
Perhaps we have gained enough distance to evaluate the brief interlude that was the history of communism. It is true we still have China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea with us, and a lot of noise from Hugo Chavez, but the term of communism as a living idea in the world began in 1871 with the Paris Commune and ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What can we say about it? It is true, of course, that the history of communism was one continually thwarted by imperialist reaction and bloodshed, by the machinations of unscrupulous, power-hungry intellectuals, and by the rise of a bloodless bureaucratic elite, who played no part in the revolutions but took for themselves the best of what their societies produced.
There are deeper truths, though. Michael Albert connects the evils of actually existing communism to the rise of what he calls “coordinatorism,” the ideology of a new class defined ideologically by their role in dictating to society what it should do rather than economically by their role in production.
I don’t think this goes deep enough. It has long been a staple of the conservative critique of communism that the very existence of a utopian ideology of social transformation itself inevitably leads to catastrophe. The mass killings of the 20th century lend a great deal of credence to this notion. It is not just Nazism and Communism; the postwar creators of the American empire, who evolved an ideological worldview that James Peck has termed “visionary globalism,” shared the same problem in lesser degree.
The other critique, that communism removed self-interest and thus initiative, certainly did not apply to the builders of the system. Those revolutionaries, dictators, apparatchiks, and political entrepreneurs were engaged in a tremendous act of will. They shook the pillars of Heaven and tried to force the pace of history, all the while proclaiming that they were in the service of historical inevitability.
They weren’t all, or even mostly, evil or purely self-serving. What united them, though — the ones that survived or succeeded — was a shared belief that they must use whatever degree of ruthlessness was required to achieve the dictates of history.
There is a new left in the world, that wishes to disavow any connection with that history of heroism, sacrifice, folly, and destruction, that wishes not to impose a cost on anyone — and much of which also doesn’t wish to bear any.
How will it avoid the mistakes of the past and also avoid the comfort and moral safety of powerlessness? How will it unite the head and the heart — without forgetting the hand?