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Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

November 9, 2009

Compared to my mainstream left-liberal friends, I feel obsessed with the issue of communism. I feel a tremendous sense of betrayal that leftist academics who aggressively advocated for communism, and aggressively attacked the free enterprise system, have not yet apologized for their mistaken judgments.

I spent most of the 1980s in academia, where the primary debates were between the communists and the socialists. Advocates of capitalism were marginalized and ridiculed; outright libertarians were outcast (except, say, at the University of Chicago economics department). At one point, while at Chicago, I met a student from the political science department at a lecture by David Friedman. We had previously met in a political science course, but seeing me at the lecture he joked, “This is like being seen in a whorehouse together!” Decent, responsible graduate students were not to be seen going to a libertarian lecture, even at Chicago: it was that simple. Meanwhile, discussions of whether violent revolutions were necessary for the (obviously desirable) transition to socialism were entirely mainstream academic conversation. Within academia up through the 1980s, discussions of revolutions in which violent death is routine were acceptable, but envisioning a society without legitimized aggression was disreputable. I wondered: Were these people insane?

Call me naïve, but after communism fell I actually expected that the thousands of communist academics would pull together to pay for a full page ad in the New York Times saying something like:

We’re so sorry; we were so wrong. There is nothing that we can do to atone for the profound mistakes in our judgment, less alone to bring back those millions who have died due to our stupidity, but we hereby salute those courageous individuals, such as Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and thousands more, who stood up to our persecution of them in the academy for the last several decades.

Do you remember seeing such a full-page ad? Please let me know if I missed it. If there are individual leftists who made such confessions, I feel obliged to give them full moral credit.

On November 9, 2009, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is appropriate to reflect on the extraordinary human capacity for delusion. It is now widely conceded that communist nations murdered tens of millions of people. According to R.J. Rummel, one of the most careful students of democide, communist governments murdered more than 140 million human beings, far more than the 20 million murdered by the Nazis. Yet despite these atrocities, intellectuals celebrated the communists over and over again throughout the 20th century.

The sociologist Paul Hollander, a Hungarian scholar who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain in 1956, subsequently built a career documenting these delusions. Here are a few choice quotations from Hollander on the delusions of intellectuals, in memoriam for those who died. They come from Hollander’s article “Judgments and Misjudgments” in Lee Edwards’ essay collection, The Collapse of Communism:

“It is noteworthy that the most favorable assessments of the Soviet Union prevailed during the early and mid-1930s, the period of the catastrophic collectivization, the famines, the Great Purge, the show trials, mass arrests and murders, and the consolidation of the compulsory cult of Stalin. . . . In a somewhat corresponding manner Western intellectuals’ admiration of communist China peaked during one of the most destructive and bloody chapters of its history: the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s.”

“The Soviet system, according to Malcolm Cowley, the American writer, ‘was capable of supplying the moral qualities that writers missed in bourgeois society: comradeship in struggle, the self-imposed discipline, the ultimate purpose . . . the opportunity for heroism and human dignity.’ Leon Feuchtwanger, the German writer, rejoiced in the ‘invigorating atmosphere’ of the Soviet Union where he found ‘clarity and resolution.’ John Dewey compared the ethos prevailing in the Soviet Union to ‘the moving spirit and force of primitive Christianity,’ and Edmund Wilson confessed that ‘you feel in the Soviet Union that you are on the moral top of the world where the light never really goes out.’ J.D. Bernal, the British scientist, found ‘sense of purpose and achievement’ and was persuaded that ‘the cornerstone of the [Soviet] Marxist state was the utilization of human knowledge, science and technique, directly for human welfare.’”

“Particular leaders were also often grotesquely misperceived, among them Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and the ‘commandantes’ of Nicaragua. Sidney and Beatrice Webb considered Stalin ‘the duly elected representative of one of the Moscow constituencies to the Supreme Soviet . . . accountable to the representative assembly for all his activities.’ Anna Louise Strong was reminded by ‘Stalin’s method of running a committee . . . of Jane Addams . . . or Lillian D. Wald. . . . They had the same kind of democratically efficient technique, but they used more high pressure than Stalin did.’ Ambassador Joseph Davies observed that Stalin’s eyes were ‘exceedingly wise and gentle. A child would like to sit on his lap and a dog would sidle up to him.’ Franklin D. Roosevelt, no starry-eyed intellectual, after his return from Yalta . . . described Stalin to his cabinet as having ‘something else in his being besides this revolutionist, Bolshevik thing’ . . . this might have something to do with Stalin’s earlier training for the ‘priesthood.’ . . . ‘I think that something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave.’ Hewlett Johnson, the dean of Canterbury . . . discerned in Mao ‘an inexpressible look of kindness and sympathy, an obvious preoccupation with the needs of others.'”

Rummel estimates that Stalin was responsible for roughly 60 million deaths and Mao for roughly 80 million deaths.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, after one has become sober, one faces an obligation to seek out those individuals one has harmed. Indeed, facing up to one’s failures is a key to spiritual growth in most religious and spiritual traditions. This principle of human psychology rings true even for this secular humanist. May those academics still living who were intoxicated with the dream of a Marxist utopia step forward with some small gesture of atonement for their nightmarish misjudgments.

  1. Contemplationist permalink
    November 12, 2009 6:32 am

    Oh my holy internet lord. This is precisely the sentiment I’ve been meaning to put to words. Thank you Mike! Thanks so much. Some of my friends think me a fool for caring about things like this. But I’m from India, where the Communist Party still rules in a couple of states. It has indulged in outright political assassinations of opposition, finishing it off in one state, etc. Our first prime minister Nehru was a Fabian socialist who followed the Soviet model and condemned hundreds of millions of my fellow countrymen to abject poverty for 4 decades, with his love of the socialist ideal.

    It gnaws at me from within how these leftists are able to survive without uttering a word of apology. The Nation magazine if you haven’t seen it yet, ran an article pretty much stating that although fall of the Berlin wall was considered a failure of socialism, this hasn’t yet been proven. Yes I kid you not. The Nation continues its deceptive love of murderous utopia.

    At this point, I’ve lost all faith that this is ever going to happen, that all those Communists and socialists in the academy are ever going to be held accountable for their reprehensible judgments and slander of decent, tower intellectual giants in the liberal tradition like Hayek and Friedman. It ain’t gonna happen. And one of the by-product tragedy of this is the current crop of ‘progressive’ college kids, who have only an inkling of an idea of what communism was, or how the monstrous experiment turned out. They have no presumption of liberty as they have no direct experience of the monstrosity of the State.

    Oh well


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