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Down With Card-Carrying Communists

This happens more than it should with a generation born after Soviet Communism’s fall. From Live Not By Lies:

Recently, a bright-eyed and cheerful twenty-six-year-old California woman told me that she thinks of herself as a communist. “It’s just so beautiful, this dream of everybody being equal,” she gushed. When she asked me what I was working on, I told her about the struggles of Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Christian dissident imprisoned and tortured by the Soviets, whom I had recently interviewed in Moscow. She fell silent.

“Don’t you know about the gulag?” I asked, naively.

Of course she didn’t. Nobody ever told her. We, her parents and grandparents, have failed her generation. And if develops no curiosity about the past, she will fail herself.

She’s not alone. Every year, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit educational and research organization established by the US Congress, carries out a survey of Americans to determine their attitudes toward communism, socialism, and Marxism in general. In 2019, the survey found that a startling number of Americans of the post-Cold War generations have favorable views of left-wing radicalism, and only 57 percent of millennials believe that the Declaration of Independence offers a better guarantee of “freedom and equality” than the Communist Manifesto. The political religion that murdered tens of millions, imprisoned and tortured countless more, and immiserated the lives of half of humanity in its time, and the defeat of which required agonizing struggle by allies across borders, oceans, political parties, and generations—this hateful ideology is romanticized by ignorant young people.

Writing in the The Harvard Crimson in 2017, undergraduate Laura Nicolae, whose parents endured the horrors of Romanian communism, spoke out against the falsification of history that her fellow Ivy Leaguers receive, both in class and in the trendy Marxism of intellectual student culture.

“Depictions of communism on campus paint the ideology as revolutionary or idealistic, overlooking its authoritarian violence,” she writes. “Instead of deepening our understanding of the world, the college experience teaches us to reduce one of the most destructive ideologies in human history to a one-dimensional, sanitized narrative.”

This really is a scandal. It should no more be acceptable to be proud of your Communist Party card than it would be to boast of a Nazi Party membership. The fact that any young Americans does testifies to a shocking lapse in historical education, as well as moral seriousness. Perhaps now you can see why so many of the US citizens who emigrated here from Communist countries get so angry that Americans won’t listen to them. Perhaps related, I’ve written three New York Times bestsellers, but Live Not By Lies is by far the fastest seller of them all. At the rate its going, it will soon pass The Benedict Option‘s sales numbers, which have been accumulating for three and a half years. It has done this with zero coverage from the mainstream media (aside from a favorable Wall Street Journal review). Our media wish to memory-hole the experience of Communism’s victims, and are not interested in what they have to tell us today. It is worth contemplating why that might be.

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was founded by the US Congress, offers educational programs for American schools. Here is a link to a curriculum the Foundation offers for use in schools. It is so very important that students learn these facts of the 20th century. One more bit from Live Not By Lies:

Forgetting the atrocities of communism is bad enough. What is even more dangerous is the habit of forgetting one’s past. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera drily observes that nobody today will defend gulags, but the world remains full of suckers for the false utopian promises that bring gulags into existence.

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child forever,” said Cicero. This, explains Kundera, is why communists placed such emphasis on conquering the minds and hearts of young people. In his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera recalls a speech that Czech president Gustáv Husák gave to a group of Young Pioneers, urging them to keep pressing forward to the Marxist paradise of peace, justice, and equality.

“Children, never look back!,” [cries Kundera’s character Husak], and what he meant was that we must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.

A collective loss of historical memory—not just memory of communism but memory of our shared cultural past—within the West is bound to have a devastating effect on our future. It’s not that forgetting the evils of communism means we are in danger of re-creating precisely that form of totalitarianism. It’s that the act of forgetting itself makes us vulnerable to totalitarianism in general.

Put another way, we not only have to remember totalitarianism to build a resistance to it; we have to remember how to remember, period.

If he’s lucky, the young man above, with his party card, will one day come to see that image as the most shameful thing he’s ever done. By the way, two great books to read, from disillusioned Communists who came to know the truth, are Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, and Under A Cruel Star, by Heda Margolius Kovaly. I had known about the Chambers book, but discovered the Kovaly book as part of my research for Live Not By Lies. Kovaly was a Czech Jew who survived the Nazi concentration camps. She and her husband, also a Jew, embraced Communism after their release because they were desperate for hope, and because Communism was the farthest thing from Nazism. Her husband became a high-level functionary in the Communist regime there, but was later falsely accused of political crimes, and executed. Kovaly writes:

What I remember most vividly from this period following the coup is a feeling of bewilderment, of groping in the dark that was doubly oppressive because the darkness was not only outside but inside me as well. How could we have been so credulous? so ignorant? It seems that once you decide to believe, your faith becomes more precious than truth, more real than reality.

People like the young man with his party card put their faith in one of history’s most monstrous lies. Maybe that faith will be impervious to reality. But he and all those tempted by this false hope should at least be compelled to see as much reality about Communism as we can muster for their inspection.

UPDATE: By the way, I’m hearing from a few readers who say they are reading Live Not By Lies with youth groups. Fantastic! Here is a link to the free downloadable study guide I wrote for just this kind of thing. 

Also, readers of this blog who are interested in my writing about non-crazy, non-appalling, non-outrageous things of the world might like to check out Daily Dreher, my Substack newsletter. I’m getting a lot of great feedback from readers of this blog who appreciate the balance. The content is all free for now, though I’m going to switch to paid eventually.

UPDATE.2: A reader writes:

As a young person who has interacted with a lot of serious card-carrying communists as well as the more general people who are interested in “socialism” I thought I’d try and shed some light on why my generation in particular (Gen Z) would be more amenable to the idea of Communism than generations before us.
My generations upbringing has been defined by its instability. I was born in the year 2000 so I don’t remember a time pre 9/11. I grew up in the shadow of a global recession that stunted the job markets of the generation before me, and in a system where it seemed like the government existed to shovel money to large corporations while regurgitating free-market dogma and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps personal responsibility platitudes out of the other. While I’m not yet in the position of graduating into a recession like the Millennials did, it’s looking increasingly likely like I will also have that dubious honor.
This instability has caused us to look for utopian answers to complex and imperfect problems. Combined with the ease of finding similar opinions on the internet, which we grew up with as a facet of everyday life, where sets of facts are constructed in a way that best appeals to our biases,it becomes very easy to be radicalized into a particular way of looking at the work and using only one lens by which to interpret a complex and messy world. It just becomes easier and easier to ignore stuff that doesn’t fit into your narrative because you can just go somewhere where no-one questions your narrative. This likely helps to contribute to the intolerance of differing ideas that is so common to my generation.
On the other hand, while I’ve met my fair share of card-carrying Marxists and Communists (not a hard thing to do at university especially for one studying political science), I feel like most of what people talk about when they mention socialism or communism is more of a social democracy with a stronger social welfare net and attempts to lower the increasingly obscene wealth divide that we have seen especially reflected in the COVID lockdowns, with the middle-class professional set able to more or less comfortably work from home where the less fortunate have to risk infecting both themselves and people that they might live with just to make ends meet. It also doesn’t help that for ages the right has been engaged in a project of shouting down anything to the left of Hayek as socialism in the first place, so when people think of socialism/communism, they don’t think of the atrocities of Mao and Stalin, but instead think of policies that might make a positive difference in their lives like a stronger national healthcare system and higher taxes that could fund better education for their children.
Our generation sees itself as facing near insurmountable problems. Burdened by student debt, with the highest rate of anxiety and depression in history, with an approaching climate crisis and a political culture unwilling and unable to compromise, we can’t see a future in which slow and incremental change and compromise produces the policies likely to help us in the future. Even after 2008, the government response to the COVID crisis was to shovel more money to corporations and, while some direct support was issued to Americans, largely left people to fend for themselves. In this context, revolution, even if it’s from a failed ideology, seems attractive because it offers a way to actually get things done. There is also a certain hubris of the present, that because we are so much more advanced than people were in the past that we could never make the same mistakes.
In any case, I hope this is illuminating in some respects. It’s definitely not the best overview of why this stuff is on the rise,but if I gave a full analysis it would probably be the length of a dissertation, and I have exams coming up in the next few weeks. I may write again once I have some more free time though.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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