Whatever Happened to Communism?
From world threat to marginal cult – it all happened so quickly
For seventy years the specter of Communism haunted the West: it terrified those proverbial little old ladies in tennis shoes who thought the Russians were about to invade Duluth and conquer their virtue, it created entire careers for demagogic American politicians and neoconservative policy wonks who would have been otherwise unemployable – and it murdered millions in the process.
Then, all of a sudden, *poof* – it was gone!
What’s interesting is that no one predicted it – no one in a position to influence policy, that is. The CIA hadn’t the slightest hint that the mighty Soviet colossus was on its last legs. Right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, US officials were still solemnly invoking the Soviet “threat” as a justification for yet more military spending, and neoconservative polemicists were insisting Gorbachev’s overtures to the West were a ploy to lure us to sleep.
Like most of the “threats” we have faced over the years, the US government actively aided the Soviet Union: during World War II, “Uncle Joe” Stalin was our esteemed ally, and US wartime propaganda depicted Soviet Russia as a happy land flourishing under the benevolent Communist regime. Media coverage of the Soviet “experiment” was remarkably blind to the cruelties of the regime: Walter Duranty’s infamous “reporting” for the New York Times whitewashing Stalin’s crimes is emblematic of the Western intelligentsia’s tendency to look at the Red “experiment” through rose-colored glasses. Hollywood, too, was celebrating the Soviet Union: such movies as “Song of Russia,” which depicted smiling Soviet citizens as inhabitants of a near-utopia, are a shameful reminder of a time when Stalinism was all the rage. It was the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, and Communism was “in” – all the really cool public intellectuals were in on it.
After the war ended, however, America’s honeymoon with “Uncle Joe” was over: Winston Churchill made a speech in Fulton, Missouri, in which is he declared that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, making the continent half-slave and half-free. President Harry Truman initiated loyalty oaths for US government employees, and a purge of alleged “Communists” in public life began, extending from government agencies to labor unions and schools. Sen. Joseph McCarthy made an entire political career out of red-baiting US government employees with pinko connections who had wormed their way into Washington during the old Popular Front days. The cold war started in earnest.
There was a time during the 1960s when it really did look like Communism was indeed the wave of the future. With the US backing every tinpot right-wing dictator from South America to Southeast Asia, and with Communist-backed insurgencies rising throughout the “Third World” (as we used to call it back then), it seemed as if the Soviets had the upper hand in the worldwide struggle between East and West. I remember, as a young right-winger, looking at maps that purported to illustrate the Commie Threat, with vast swathes of red sweeping through Asia and Africa, surrounding and threatening the few remaining redoubts of civilization in Western Europe and North America. Then there was that famous issue of American Opinion, the magazine of the John Birch Society, which rated all the countries of the world according to their degree of Communist penetration: The US, according to their mid-Sixties estimate, was “60 to 80 percent” Communist-dominated!
That the paranoia and war hysteria of the cold war era was preceded by a decade of Russophilia in Washington and the national media was conveniently forgotten – except by those aforementioned Birchers, who never tired of reminding us of Duranty’s treason, and how Lend-Lease had saved the Soviets’ bacon. Their point was well-taken: if the enemy was formidable, then we had done our part in enlarging and even creating the threat – but this kind of objectivity, when applied to one’s own nation, was deemed impermissibly “extremist” by Bill Buckley and his friends in the media echo chamber. The poor Birchers were sent into exile, while the “respectable” right joined up with the “anti-communist left,” i.e. a gaggle of ex-Trotskyists and right-wing social democrats with CIA connections, marching off to “pay any price, bear any burden” (as JFK put it) in order to keep the Free World out of the Kremlin’s evil clutches.
The Truman Doctrine was a gauntlet flung down in the path of a remorseless – and seemingly unstoppable – Communist advance in the postwar world, as the Communist-dominated underground resistance movements in France and Italy remerged onto the political scene, and the “loss” of China evoked fears of a Kremlin-backed conquest of the Far East.
This last seemed to be confirmed when North Korean Communist forces invaded the south in 1950. As the Chinese joined the North Koreans and pushed back the UN forces, it was the conservative opponents of interventionism, such as Joseph P. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover, who called for the withdrawal of all US troops from Korea. The conservative Chicago Tribune editorialized against the war. Truman’s liberal amen corner was outraged by this display of unmitigated “isolationism”: the New Republic fumed that the same “opposition that saw nothing alarming in Hitler’s conquest of Europe” was now plotting a new treason:
“Stalin, after raising the ante, as he did with Hitler, and sweeping over Asia, would move on until the Stalinist caucus in the Tribune tower would bring out in triumph the first Communist edition of the Chicago Tribune.”
The Nation chimed in, proclaiming that the back to back Kennedy-Hoover speeches were the biggest Communist victories since “the triumph of Stalingrad.” These were the alleged voices of American “liberalism” – red-baiting Herbert Hoover and the ultra-conservative publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Robert R. McCormick.
Kennedy’s anti-Korean war speech is of particular interest for its clear-eyed prescience:
“We have never wanted a part of other peoples’ scrapes. Today we have them and just why, nobody quite seems to know. What business is it of ours to support French colonial policy in Indo-China or to achieve Mr. Syngman Rhee’s concepts of democracy in Korea? Shall we now send the Marines into the mountains of Tibet to keep the Dalai Lama on his throne? We can do well to mind our business and interfere only where somebody threatens our business and our homes.”
Warning that lavish spending on foreign wars would risk a repeat of the financial collapse of 1932, the senior Kennedy toted up the costs of interventionism:
“An Atlas, whose back is bowed and whose hands are busy holding up the world, has no arms to lift to deal with his own defense. Increase his burdens and you will crush him. . . . This is our present posture. . . . The suggestions I make . . . would . . . conserve American lives for American ends, not waste them in the freezing hills of Korea or on the battle-scarred plains of Western Germany.”
Atlas, however, wasn’t quite ready to shrug. The old “isolationists” were soon marginalized, and Hoover’s conservative brethren out-Trumanned Truman in the zeal with which they pursued the Communist Threat on the Asian front. A lot of this was mixed up with McCarthyism and the “who lost China?” debate, which revolved around accusations of extensive Communist penetration of the State Department during the Roosevelt years. Hoover’s warning that a land war in Asia would be disastrous for the United States went unheeded, and the conservatives – who had previously been skeptics of US intervention abroad – now became the most fervent advocates of “world leadership.” Equally unheeded was Kennedy’s premonition of how and why the Leninist project would fail:
“Communism still has to prove itself to its peoples as a government that will achieve for them a better way of living. The more people that it will have to govern, the more necessary it becomes for those who govern to justify themselves to those being governed. The more peoples that are under its yoke, the greater are the possibilities of revolt. Moreover, it seems certain that Communism spread over Europe will not rest content with being governed by a handful of men in the Kremlin. Tito in Yugoslavia is already demonstrating this fact. Mao in China is not likely to take his orders from Stalin.”
In January, 1951, when Kennedy delivered his speech, the Kremlin loomed over the world like Satan with a sword. Every May Day the Communist leaders would stand on a balcony and review long lines of Red Army battalions and fearsome-looking military hardware: while our Kremlinologists interpreted Soviet power relations according to who stood where – and in proximity to whom – our military experts sized up the latest Soviet military advances, which invariably called for expensive countermeasures from our side. An entire academic discipline – indeed, a whole industry – had grown up around the anti-Communist crusade in the West, and the theoreticians of the cold war – many of them former Communists themselves – found their way into government, and became the go-to “experts.”
Yet not a one of them ever so much as hinted at the ultimate fate of the Communist empire – the rapid implosion of the Warsaw Pact regimes and the subsequent break up of the Soviet Union. To my knowledge, only two writers predicted the Kremlin’s fall: in the first years of the Soviet “experiment,” Austrian free market economist Ludwig von Mises accurately foretold the failure of the socialist system on account of its inability to transmit price signals. Socialism, he maintained, could not last. On a less theoretical plane, and in the latter days of Soviet power, Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik wondered if the Soviet Union could last until 1984. His answer, in a 1969 book of that title, was that the Communist system was near the point of complete collapse.
The death of Communism shows us how transitory our fears, both real and imagined, really are: a huge worldwide “conspiracy” with tentacles on every continent, all leading back to that World Capital of Evil, where the mighty lords of the Kremlin were perpetually plotting to bury us. It made for a dramatic narrative – and it was based on a complete falsehood. The falsehood being that what Louis Bromfield called the “worldwide psychopathic cult known as Communism” was anything other than a “ramshackle empire,” as he called it, a trumped up “threat” that hardly justified the US going to a war footing. Yet that is precisely how conservatives reacted. Recall William F. Buckley’s infamous declaration in Commonweal magazine, at the dawn of the cold war, that the “thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union imminently threatens U.S. security,” and that therefore
“We have got to accept Big Government for the duration–for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged…except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”
Conservatives, he concluded, must therefore support high taxes in the interests of defeating the Soviet menace, including support for “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all.” Communism may be long gone, but the conservatives have not lost their taste for Big Government — which just goes to show how the exception becomes the rule.
What happened to Communism is that a totalitarian ideology that should have been incinerated in the blast furnace of World War II was succored by the West until it could be credibly configured as an emerging “threat.” This was followed by a long “cold war” in the course of which we did more to aid the spread of Communist influence than we ever did to minimize it. It took a few decades before the nationalistic overlay that Stalinism contributed to Marxist “theory” wore off, and the ideological bankruptcy of what remained became all too apparent. Like a giant tree hollowed out to its very core by termites, the Soviet Union simply disintegrated.
The last surviving pockets of Communism today are a pathetic sight indeed, from whatever perspective one might view them. From the perspective of an unrepentant Marxist, surely nothing must offend the eyes more than the sight of “Communist” China showing the West what capitalism is really all about. From the radical egalitarianism of the “cultural revolution” to the famous slogan of Deng Xiaoping’s “To get rich is glorious!“, China has made a complete turnaround while still keeping the old “Marxist-Leninist” trappings and paying lip service to Mao. Capitalism in China is alive and thriving: the Chinese Communist Party – not so much.
The last bastion of the old Stalinist ideology of the cold war years is Cuba, where a retired but still feisty Fidel still thumbs his nose at the Yanqui imperialists. While American leftists continue to rhapsodize over its health care system, the island is a ramshackle remnant of the past, frozen in time and living on a subsistence level. While some of this is attributable to the American embargo, the same contradictions that besieged the old Soviet system bedevil its surviving Cuban outpost today.
Cuba was – and still is – popular on the American left, in part because of the romanticism of figures like Fidel and especially Che Guevara, whose efforts to spread the Cuban brand of Communism throughout South America ended in his death. Indeed, the alleged threat represented by Cuba, as portrayed by American anti-Communists, was that the Cubans would provide a model for the South and Central Americans to follow – and, before you knew it, the commies would be crossing the Rio Grande.
The truth turned out to be quite different. Instead of spreading Communism like wildfire, Guevara’s guerrilla force only succeeded in isolating itself from the local population, and getting their commander killed in the jungles of Bolivia. The guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua, which were supposedly fronts for Soviet subversion of the Western hemisphere, flared up and then died down, eventually entering the political process, transforming themselves into conventional social democrats, and gaining power via elections. Cuban “internationalist” military adventurism in Africa proved abortive – and prohibitively expensive and unpopular at home.
Cuba today is a vintage item, a throwback to the days when Leonid Brezhnev cast a giant shadow over the world. After half a century in power,the regime is more beleaguered than ever – the worst thing that could happen to the Cuban Communist Party would be for the US to lift the embargo, and allow Americans to travel to the island freely. It was only because the rulers of the East European Soviet satellites couldn’t seal their subjects off from knowledge of the West that the Revolution of 1989 took place: in the case of Cuba, however, our own embargo dampens the prospect of a similar spontaneous combustion.
The other examples of countries where Communism in state power persists, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea, are all case studies of how the anti-communist crusade of the cold war era actually undermined the anti-communist cause. All three were the sites of US military action in wars of “liberation” which were supposed to “roll back” Communism: in all three cases, however, the result was the exact opposite.
The great irony is that, decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communism still persists in those countries where we fought longest and hardest to eradicate it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m almost sure of it….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’m having great fun on Twitter these days, and I urge you to join me on this wonderfully interactive site: you can do so by going here.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
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