Communism and the Lessons of History

There is nothing more important for us to learn and understand than our own nature. Human nature, by which I mean our innate behavioral traits, does not determine human history, but it constrains it. Anyone aware of those fundamentally emotional traits, related although certainly not identical versions of which exist in many other animals, would have realized that Communism was a non-starter. The Communists and their intellectual fellow travelers fondly believed that their noble experiment would be immune from such hard-wired features of our mental equipment as ingroup-outgroup behavior and the inevitable competition for status and power in human groups, whether they be political parties, “classes,” or social clubs. It was not. As E. O. Wilson so accurately observed concerning Communism, “Great theory, wrong species.”

Communism was a costly experiment. In the attempt to apply it, countries like Russia and Cambodia virtually decapitated themselves. Given its cost, it would behoove us to learn from it. I see very little happening along those lines. The whole phenomenon is fading from living memory, and the historical facts relating to its spectacular rise to prominence as the greatest secular religion of all time, its brutal and bloody reality, and its eventual collapse are all becoming dim as they recede into the mists of time. I can think of no history that it would be more important for our children to learn, but I doubt that more than one in a hundred of our high school students knows who Lenin actually was, let alone the basic tenets of Marxist philosophy.

One lesson we should surely learn is humility. We are not really an intelligent species. We are just smarter than the rest. Our powers of self-delusion are, nevertheless, phenomenal. In the wake of the Great Depression, a whole generation of some of the best and brightest intellectuals among us managed to bamboozle themselves, in spite of copious evidence to the contrary existing at the time, into believing that Communism was both humane and the inevitable future of mankind. Read the pages of such journals as The New Republic, the Nation, and the American Mercury after H. L. Mencken turned over the editorship to Charles Angoff, and you’ll see what I mean. There were certainly a few more sober heads among them, but many of the most prominent political thinkers were cocksure that the Depression proved beyond any reasonable doubt that capitalism had reached a dead end, and the only remaining question regarding the transition to socialism was how it would occur. There are countless examples of this mindset, well known to anyone familiar with the history of the time. One of the more obscure but illustrative examples was published in 1933 by Elias Tobenkin in his book, Stalin’s Ladder. Here are some vignettes from that work:

(The criminologist) leaves the Soviet Union with a heartening sense of having witnessed something new under the sun. Soviet prisons and the Soviet penal system open a novel and inspiring chapter in the relations between society and the criminal. Soviet Russia is successfully coping with the age-old problem of crime and punishment on the basis of a complete transformation of prison life and a complete reversal of the old attitude of vindictiveness toward the individual offender.

With the antiquated prison system there went by the board the practices of corporal punishment, of solitary confinement and of the “iron bags” – the vault-like individual cells that gave the Czarist prisons their stark appellation of the “House of the Dead.”

The conception of punishment, of revenge upon the criminal has been outlawed. In a decree issued in March, 1919, the Communist party ordered the country’s prisons to be transformed into educational institutions. Confinement in such an institution was declared to be an “economic corrective,” for the purpose of educating the offender “in the discipline common to all workers.”

The prisoner has his whole life recut and reshaped during his period of confinement. He gets a complete overhauling physically, mentally, and psychically. His emotions are drained of past bitterness and disappointments and attuned to a course of labor and peace with his fellows, with the world.

…and much more of the same. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind were yet to appear, but there were already many published accounts available of the reality of the Soviet forced labor camps by lesser known authors with firsthand knowledge at the time Tobenkin was writing his book.  They were ignored by those who should have known better, swamped by a vast wave of confirmation bias, and trivialized by phrases like, “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

It’s easy to gain a sense of intellectual hubris in reading the countless similar examples of delusional self-deception published at the time by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, not to mention such lesser intellectual lights as Tobenkin. We would do well to resist the urge. In matters touching the Soviet prison system we have the familiar advantage of Monday morning quarterbacks. Not so concerning the political and intellectual controversies of our own day. The true believers in the political narratives of the left and the right are just as cocksure they have a monopoly on the truth as ever the likes of Shaw or Wells were in their own day. History is likely to prove them just as delusional.

The truth is elusive to minds as limited as ours. It is best to retain a due sense of intellectual humility, and refrain from wandering too far from the domain of repeatable experiments into the realm of unfalsifiable speculation. Otherwise we are just so many Tobenkins waiting to happen.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

One thought on “Communism and the Lessons of History”

  1. Our human nature may not always be pretty and the behaviors it inspires are often contrary to the politically correct dogma of the left. However, as you have aptly pointed out, it is absurd and self-defeating to deny or ignore it. Any political system which attempts to ignore human nature is doomed; a non starter. Communism has proved itself to be incompatible with human nature yet America seems hell bent on adopting its tenants under the banner of progress. I hope we can turn this ship around in time.

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