Last September a group of boys from Eton managed to arrange a secret meeting in the Kremlin with Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin asked them how they had set about achieving this, and the boys replied that they had not worked through the school, which had nothing to do with organising the trip, but through the various societies to which they belong. Mr Putin, puzzled, asked: “What are societies?” 

The question brought home in the most direct possible way what the Russian people principally lost through Communist rule – the rule that Putin had exercised, and which he and others had maintained over Eastern Europe. ­People ­living under Communism had been deprived of the most important of all human goods, which is the freedom to associate for purposes of their own, including the purpose of having no purpose save this one. And the question also brought home what the English people enjoy in a school such as Eton, which is not just a private association of volunteers, devoted to education and outside the control of the state, but the roof under which a hundred smaller initiatives are sheltered: debating societies, houses, drama groups, teams, all the clubs, trusts and traditions of a vital civil society.

People living under Communism had been deprived of the most important of all human goods, which is the freedom to associate for purposes of their own, including the purpose of having no purpose save this one. 

When the Communists took over the government of Hungary in 1948, Janos Kádar, as minister of home affairs, was given the task of abolishing every association not controlled by the Party. In the course of a year he destroyed 5,000 of these “little platoons”. Churches, schools, religious establishments and charities were followed by sports teams, chess clubs, brass bands, orchestras, theatre ­groups, ­women’s institutes… until the social landscape was entirely laid bare, and not an institution was standing. Private charity was made illegal, and no group of people could hold funds in trust to help their fellows. Everything had to pass through the Communist Party, which seized all civic endowments and applied them to goals of its own.

The Czech lands and Slovakia likewise lost their civic inheritance, and no private educational initiative existed in those countries apart from those conducted in secret by people who risked imprisonment should they be discovered. Thanks to the Catholic Church the Poles had a centre of resistance to the Communist dictatorship, which permitted them to lift the corners of the tent that the Party had thrown over them, so as to let in a chink or two of light. The Catholic University of Lublin retained its independence, though starved of funds, and religious orders could offer social consolations of their own. But the Poles too suffered the “withering away of civil society”, conducted by the Party that promised the “withering away of the state”.

Educated people will know from The Gulag Archipelago and subsequent studies something of the terrible cost of Communism in terms of human life and suffering. They will know of the genocides and the forced enslavements of whole populations. Readers of Doctor Zhivago will be aware of the total chaos that was the inevitable consequence of the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, when all private initiative was forbidden, and individual accountability was driven from the system. And many people, studying the disaster, will recognise that the abolition of the rule of law was both an inevitable part of the totalitarian project and the cause of irreparable fractures in the community that emerged. But not everyone is aware of the attack on civil society, or of its consequences for social and political order, because the lesson that it teaches is one that we still have to learn.

“What are societies?”

The distinction between state and civil society was spelled out carefully by Hegel, and was in the back of Marx’s mind when he argued that under Communism we would see a “withering away of the state”. But before that could happen, Marx wrote, there would have to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, in order to oversee the dismantling of the oppressive order established by capitalism. This nonsense was spouted continually by the Communists. They took it to authorise both the destruction of civil society and the amplification of the state, while at the same time removing all the legal, civil and moral barriers between the individual and the Party. This was the true origin of Communist enslavement. 

Communism isolated individuals from their fellows, and then turned the spotlight of interrogation on them so as to watch them squirm. 

Individuals stood isolated and alone in the predicament defined for them by the apparatus – their jobs, housing, education and opportunities were controlled from on high, and the spotlight of official observation followed them wherever they went. The normal ways of recreation – meeting in the pub, forming clubs to pursue hobbies and educational activities, joining a church, a scout troop, a dining circle, a brass band – were either forbidden or dangerous. And if you fell on hard times there was no group of citizens, not alms-giver or rescue operation, to which you could turn for help. In everything that affected your comfort and survival you were on your own. 

That, to me, was the great sin that lay at the heart of the Communist system – the sin of isolating individuals from their fellows, and then turning the spotlight of interrogation on them so as to watch them squirm.