I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism. History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior. From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism. It’s not a pretty picture. In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia. One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith. It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”
Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published. These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end. A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20’s and early 30’s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists. As a result he was treated “gently.” He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation. The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg. The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived. They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU. Serge recalls,
I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door. “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!” Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders. He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching: “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!” They were almost naked. We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began. The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea. When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”
The maidservants story was hardly unique. Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves. Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps. Serge describes many other such scenes. Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:
One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.
Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger. One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion. I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist. I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.
My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off. He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter. They left him lying there, bloody but full.
At the rationing office a poster announced: “Grandparents have no right to food cards.” All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.
These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union. Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope. He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time. Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20’s and 30’s. The western intellectuals averted their eyes. Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!” A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean. Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.
and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,
As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance. I feel as though there were a book inflation.
This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it. Serge knew better. He wrote,
All legal means of expression were now closed to us. From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.
In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere). The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look. Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look. Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal. After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished. It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time. Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.
If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet. Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man. We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood. That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind. In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now. The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.
It would be very risky to forget about Communism. It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.