More than a poet, Heinrich Heine was a prophet when in 1842 he wrote, “Communism possesses a language which every people can understand – its elements are hunger, envy and death.” Here, he held, was a sombre hero in a modern tragedy. And so it proved, with the deportation from their homelands of whole populations, genocide, enforced famine, slave labour, and concentration camps in every country under Communist rule. It is generally estimated that a hundred million defenceless men and women paid with their lives for being what they were, not for anything they had done.
Marxism-Leninism, the ideology that transformed Russia into the Soviet Union, violently redefined the relationships of person to person, and of everyone to the state. The individual was supposed to be responsible to the collective, no longer to himself. This demand for a new identity gave rise to disastrous psychological repercussions. Whoever dared to criticise or tell the truth risked denunciation and punishment. Dissembling and lying were obligatory strategies for survival. Altruism was a form of self-harm. Detached from any idea of human fulfilment, culture and the arts served the exclusive purposes of the state.
Interviewed on the BBC, EJ Hobsbawm, a professor with a long career of Soviet apology, went so far as to say that he would still approve the death of 20 million people in order to set up a Communist state.
Josef Stalin standardised the supporting doctrine in two books, Dialectical and Historical Materialism and The Foundations of Leninism, both of them more or less compulsory reading, much as Hitler’s Mein Kampf was in Germany. Supposedly, a dialectic operates whereby history is an irredeemable process of class warfare bound to end in the dictatorship of the proletariat. This would be a perfect society, so perfect that the state withers away. At one international conference in the 1930s, a Communist official won a certain immortality by saying that in this perfect society no child would ever be killed accidentally.
In the Soviet Union and every country with a Communist Party, classes were held in which some unfortunate hack had to unfold this dialectic to Party members who might well be examined to see what sense they made of it. Nobody could explain why the proletariat should be favoured by history, and there was no attempt to describe how they would manage their dictatorship. Meanwhile the state was becoming steadily stronger and more centralised. Marxist-Leninist ideologues were in the position of witch-doctors blinding with mumbo-jumbo.
The real Stalin gave himself away when he said in his inner circle: “To choose one’s enemies, to prepare one’s plan minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed… there is nothing sweeter.” In the archives are lists of names that he signed off in red ink with the invariable command, “Shoot” or “Shoot Immediately.” To the world at large, however, he and Communist leaders everywhere covered reality with the claim to be modernising society on strictly rational scientific lines. Successive Five Year Plans were presented as guarantees that the Communist economy would outstrip its capitalist competitor. Mikhail Gorbachev, the final General Secretary, is known to have admitted that the statistics he received were falsified through and through, which was one of the causes of his downfall. Dissembling and lying thus began at the top.
Catherine the Great’s chancellor, Prince Potemkin, built a village consisting only of facades in order to deceive anyone inquiring into the misery of the nation. The Soviet Union and every one of its satellite states were Potemkin fictions. Immense numbers of visitors from capitalist countries have spent a week or two on tours of the Soviet Union and come away deeply impressed, to spread far and wide the news that the Soviet Union was wonderfully progressive in one field or another.
Often fellow-travellers rather than Party members, they had in fact seen only what the authorities were willing to show them. Inexplicably suspending their critical faculties, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, Romain Rolland, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emil Ludwig from Germany, Walter Duranty, the Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, and Joseph E Davies, the American ambassador, are among influential opinion-makers whose misleading reports about the splendid achievements of Communism expose them to mockery and cynicism that still needs addressing.
Credulity persisted right up to the collapse of Communism. In 1984, the prominent economist JK Galbraith could write about “the solid well-being of the people on the streets,” and the success of the system. Interviewed on the BBC, EJ Hobsbawm, a professor with a long career of Soviet apology, went so far as to say that he would still approve the death of 20 million people in order to set up a Communist state.
At one international conference in the 1930s, a Communist official won a certain immortality by saying that in this perfect society no child would ever be killed accidentally.
In post-war Germany, surviving Nazi leaders were put on trial and those found guilty were hanged. Former SS men were also tried, some were hanged and others imprisoned, and a great many were permanently excluded from any public position. Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for genocide in Cambodia and a few selected
Communist leaders in Poland, East Germany and former Czechoslovakia have been brought to court.
Nothing like that has occurred in Russia, where thousands of KGB brutes and concentration camp guards enjoy tranquil lives. Appearing on a television programme during the Boris Yeltsin presidency, Lieutenant-General Dimitri Tokaryev described his command of one of the execution squads at Katyn in 1940, shooting so many Poles in the back of the head that his trigger finger became sore and swollen. Boasting of murder, he should have been arrested in the studio, not driven home by a chauffeur. In the absence of trials that oblige known murderers and criminals to submit to the law, the intellectual and moral disgrace of Communism continues to fester.