Day by day, it becomes harder to tell parody from reality. If I told you that a major press was publishing a book called Communism for Kids, would you believe me? After due investigation, I can confirm that the title does exist, and that it is deadly serious. Even more remarkable, it comes from a very respectable publisher, namely MIT Press—yes, that MIT. (I cannot presently confirm suggestions of such possible future MIT titles as Sure, Johnny, You Should Take Candy From the Guy in the Van.) While we might like to attribute this project to temporary insanity, it does reflect some larger and really troubling currents in U.S. political discourse.
Communism for Kids is the work of Bini Adamczak, “a Berlin-based social theorist and artist” heavily involved in “queer theory.” When it originally appeared in German, the book was titled Kommunismus: Kleine Geschichte, wie Endlich Alles Anders Wird—roughly, “Communism: A Little Story, How Finally Everything Will Be Different”—without the explicit provocation of being aimed at children. In fact, the book is a simplified, user-friendly account of Marxist theory, illustrated with cartoons. At its heart are a series of case studies in pseudo-fairy tale language, where people explore various economic arrangements before settling on utopian communism.
Somewhere along the line, MIT Press decided to market it “for kids,” inspiring some confusion in the process. Amazon lists it as a children’s book intended for grades 3–7, although also suggesting a much more realistic age range of “18 and up.” Conceivably, the press deliberately chose the new title as a marketing gimmick in order to drive controversy and thereby increase sales. Alternatively, on the basis of their experience in Cambridge, Mass., they decided that there actually were enough play groups that would be delighted to work through Adamczak’s scenarios.
Either way, the book is targeted at “youngsters” broadly defined, and it has attracted some amazingly laudatory blurbs. Celebrity academic theorist Fredric R. Jameson remarks that this “delightful little book may be helpful in showing youngsters there are other forms of life and living than the one we currently ‘enjoy.’” Oh, the lowering severity that the professor bestows on us when we dare “enjoy” anything in our present monstrous dystopia! Novelist Rachel Kushner thinks that Adamczak’s is precisely the book we need at a time when global capitalism has brought us “more inequality than has ever been experienced by humans on earth” (which is a precise inversion of actual historical reality).
Assume for the sake of argument that Communism for Kids is not in fact designed to propagandize third graders, but is rather intended for teens and young adults. Is that not enough of a scandal in its own right? Somewhere in the book, might it not be acknowledged that communism is the bloodiest ideological system in human history? Solely measured by the number of his victims, Mao Zedong alone leaves Hitler in the dust. Could the book not mention such monuments to communist utopia as Kolyma and Vorkuta, among the largest and cruelest concentration camps that have ever existed?
Should it not be said that a solid scholarly consensus now accepts that this record of violence and bloodshed was a logical and inevitable consequence of the communist model itself, rather than a tragic betrayal or deformation? Evil Joseph Stalin did not distort the achievements and goals of Noble Vladimir Lenin: rather, he fulfilled them precisely. Pursuing the “for kids” framework, should we not see some equally cheery volumes such as A Day at the Gulag, and even (for middle schoolers) Natasha Is Shot as a Class Enemy? How about Springtime for Stalin?
As an intellectual exercise, just imagine that a major U.S. press offered a youth-oriented book on some other comparably bloody or violent system, such as National Socialism or white supremacy. The book might contain vignettes showing how young people at first learned to accept racial mixing and miscegenation. Eventually, though, they would realize the deeper underlying evils of Semitic influence. Or to paraphrase the advertising copy for Communism for Kids, such a little book would discuss a different kind of National Socialism, “one that is true to its ideals and free from authoritarianism.” Not of course that the publisher would actually be advocating such a thing, God forbid; it would rather be encouraging debate about the options available to contemporary youth. What reasonable person would object to such free discussion?
Even to describe such a project betrays its intrinsic lunacy. The book would not be treated seriously at any stage; it would not be accepted, and if it were, the press’s personnel would resign en masse rather than be involved in its actual publication. The press itself would likely not survive the debacle, and nor should it.
How, then, is that hypothetical instance different from Communism for Kids? Put simply, a great many educated Americans believe that totalitarianism of the left is utterly different from that of the right, and that communism should not be placed in the same toxic category as Nazism or fascism. According to this delusion, Americans who turned to communism through the decades were stubborn idealists, in stark contrast to those monsters who succumbed to racist or fascist theories. For all its possible failings, communism was not evil of itself. To misquote Chesterton, communism was not an ideal that was tried and found wanting, but rather was found difficult and therefore left untried. One day, though, when the stars align, we will do it right!
Such a benevolent view of communism is appallingly false and betrays a near total ignorance of the history of the past century. When we treat communism with tolerance or levity, we are scoffing at literally tens of millions of murdered victims. This is a disgusting moral idiocy, for which we must blame our educational institutions, and our mass media.
For a publisher like MIT Press to reinforce that view, to trivialize the communist historical record, is unpardonable. Have they no decency?
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.