We live in sedate times, at least from an ideological point of view. Such excrescences of the 20th century as Nazism and fascism have come and gone. The greatest messianic world view of them all, Communism, if not stone cold dead, is no more than a shadow of its former self. With its demise, its very memory is passing into oblivion. That’s unfortunate. Given the cost of the Communist experiment – 100 million dead and the virtual beheading of at least two countries, Russia and Cambodia – we would do well to at least learn something from it.
It seems to me that one particularly profound lesson is the degree to which vast numbers of intellectuals the world over were capable of deluding themselves about the nature of the Stalinist regime, renowned scientists among them. Malcolm Muggeridge chronicled the phenomena in his brilliant little snapshot of the time, The Thirties. For example,
Admiration for the Soviet regime had greatly increased since the introduction of the Five-Year Plan in 1929, though more among Liberals and the professional classes than among trade unionists, who from the beginning showed themselves to be less easily deluded by Soviet propaganda than university professors, writers and clergymen. Professor Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous and grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, ed.), for instance, had no difficulty in believing that ‘while we were in Russia a German town-planning expert was travelling over the huge Siberian spaces in a special train with a staff of assistants, where cities are to arise stopping for a few days, picking out the best site, laying down the broad outlines of the future city, and passing on, leaving the details to be filled in by architects and engineers who remain’ or that ‘Stalin himself sometimes comes down to the Moscow goods sidings to help.’
The cost of a tour in the USSR, though moderate, was beyond the means of most manual workers, so that those who availed themselves of the exceedingly competent Intourist organization were predominantly income-tax payers. Their delight in all they saw and were told, and the expression they gave to this delight, constitute unquestionably one of the wonders of the age.
The almost unbelievable credulity of these mostly university-educated tourists astonished even Soviet officials used to handling foreign visitors.
The climax came, perhaps, with the visit to the USSR of Mr. Bernard Shaw, Lady Astor and Lord Lothian, which provided, as Mr. Eugene Lyons has put it, ‘a fortnight of clowning… The lengthening obscenity of ignorant or indifferent tourists disporting themselves cheerily on the aching body of Russia, seemed summed up in this cavorting old man, in his blanket endorsement of what he would not understand. He was so taken up with demonstrating how youthful and agile he was that he had no attention to spare for the revolution in practice.
Despite such episodes the Soviet regime continued to be held in ever greater esteem by writers like Shaw and Andre Gide and Romain Rolland: clergymen like the Reverend Hewlett Johnson, journalists like Walter Duranty and Maurice Hindus, economists like G. D. H. Cole and the Webbs (Sidney and Beatrice, Fabian socialists, ed.) scientists like Professor Julian Huxley. How could all these, so learned and to righteous, be wrong?
…like vegetarians undertaking a pious pilgrimage to a slaughter-house because it displayed a notice recommending nut-cutlets.
All this is doubly astounding in light of the fact that it was so obvious at the time all this was going on that the Soviet Union had become a vast charnel house. Indeed, Muggeridge himself had sympathized with the new regime. The scales fell from his eyes when he took an unauthorized trip to the Ukraine while visiting the Soviet Union, and saw the starvation and misery there first hand, even as Walter Duranty was denying it in the New York Times. The Eugene Lyons Muggeridge refers to above was a journalist who spent six years in the Soviet Union and was not as easily duped as Duranty. He wrote a damning indictment of the regime in his book, Moscow Carrousel. In a synopsis of his findings written for the American Mercury in 1936 in the context of a review of the Webb’s ecstatic praise of the regime in their book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?, he wrote,
The material out of which the Webbs have fashioned their Utopia is that theoretical USSR of governmental forms, paper freedoms, poster proletarians, stage kulaks, decrees, and charts – the immense make-believe of externals under which all governments, especially all-powerful, all-knowing and infallible super-states, function.
One is tempted to quote endlessly from the curious mixture of misinformation, half-truths, and naive credulity which fill these volumes. The liquidation of the kulaks, for instance, becomes under the busy pens of the Webbs almost an act of benevolence. These poor people, it appears, would have starved to death had not the authorities come along mercifully and transferred them free of charge to the lumber camps and canal diggings.
The discussion of other aspects of the terror is in the same key. Everything that might reflect on the institution of the OGPU (secret police, ed.) is dismissed with a sneer… The whole complex of forced and convict labor involving millions of persons (hundreds of thousands are building canals and railroads at this very moment); the mass executions without public trial; the teeming concentration camps; all of this the Webbs judge on the basis of official statements, official silences, and the mendacities of ill-informed foreign parrots.
Lyons’ article is interesting in that it documents the fact that the truth about the mass slaughter underway in the Soviet Union was perfectly obvious to anyone who didn’t deliberately delude themselves, even in 1936, before the climax of the Great Purge Trials in 1937 and 1938. Which begs the question, why were so many seemingly intelligent people so delusional for so long? The question was answered by Julius Caesar over 2000 years ago: “People willingly believe what they want to believe.” And many intellectuals of the time dearly wanted to believe in socialism, if not Communism. Many of them shared Maxim Gorky’s belief that democracy was impossible without it. Ironically, they included George Orwell, certainly no Stalinist or Communist, but a lifelong socialist, who never realized his work would deal such a telling blow to socialism until it was too late. In his essays before the war, he actually claimed that there was no moral distinction between the Nazi and British versions of capitalism. For example, in an essay entitled “Spilling the Spanish Beans,” that appeared in the New English Weekly in 1937, he wrote,
You can oppose Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”, meaning capitalism. But meanwhile you have got to get rid of the troublesome person who points out that Fascism and bourgeois “democracy” are Tweedledum and Tweedledee… If the British public had been given a truthful account of the Spanish war (in which Orwell was a combatant, ed.) they would have had an opportunity of learning what Fascism is and how it can be combated. As it is, the News Chronicle version of Fascism as a kind of homicidal mania peculiar to Colonel Blimps (British icon of reaction, ed.) bombinating in the economic void has been established more firmly than ever. And thus we are one step nearer to the great war “against Fascism” (cf 1914, “against militarism”) which will allow Fascism, British variety, to be slipped over our necks during the first week.
Orwell’s comment throws a great deal of light on the phenomenon of mass self-delusion noted above. By the 1930’s more than a century of socialist philosophers and propagandists, of whom Marx, Engels and Lenin were some of the more prominent examples, had elevated socialism to a quasi-religion. The brilliant Scotchman, Sir James MacKintosh, had already noticed the trend in the early 1800’s, long before Marx appeared on the scene, observing that the new religion was bound to fail eventually, because it promised an unachievable paradise on earth, where it could be fact-checked, instead of in heaven, where it could not. The new religion came complete with its own morality and its own good, the proletariat, and evil, the bourgeoisie. Speaking in terms of human nature, the bourgeoisie became an outgroup, and the system associated with it, capitalism, anathema. Thus, it was possible, even for a man as brilliant as Orwell, to seriously maintain that the British democracy and Nazism were really just manifestations of the same evil, capitalism, and therefore as equivalent to each other as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. This explains another remarkable phenomenon of the time; the willingness of so many seemingly sober economists, politicians, and other miscellaneous intellectuals to liquidate an entire economic system in favor of the gaudy, pie-in-the-sky theories of socialism. By so doing, one was not merely conducting a somewhat risky economic experiment. One was fighting evil incarnate. Self-delusion has always been a prominent characteristic of religious zealots, and the secular religious zealots of the 1930’s were no different.
Well, the experiment has been done, the facts have been checked, and, just as Sir James MacKintosh predicted over 150 years ago, the great Communist myth evaporated like a soap bubble. Islam, a more traditional religion, rushed in to fill the vacuum left by its demise, inspiring a grotesque love affair between the obscurantist zealots of the old faith and the former “progressive” zealots of the secular faith that had just died. Meanwhile, these “progressives” have begun assiduously cobbling on the outlines of a new secular faith. The most recent versions come with a new, if somewhat hackneyed and moth-eaten, morality, including a new “good” (the 99 percent), and a new “evil” (the corporations). We would do well to step back and consider whether we really want to go there again, before another country kills off the lion’s share of the intellectual cream of its population by way of eliminating the evil one percent.