100 years ago this November (based on the Russian calendar), Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky led a group known as the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Russian Tsar and created the world’s first Communist nation. This event ushered in one of the world’s darkest chapters, one in which we are still living. Given the continued existence of explicitly Communist regimes in Cuba and North Korea, the unwillingness of China to formally discard the system it no longer practices, and the popularity of Communism in some sectors (especially academia), it is well worth recalling the 100 years of brutality and despair that Communism has brought the world.
The Core of Communism is Rotten
Communism starts with several flawed premises. Most fundamentally, as defined first by Karl Marx and carried through by the Soviet Communists and their fellow travelers, Communists see people as material beings driven by needs like food, clothing and shelter. While that is obviously true, it ignores the reality that people are also driven by ideas, principles, feelings and faith. A second related dogma is that people are instruments and almost mechanical. In the Communist worldview, people exist to produce and work — their labor is the very essence of who they are. Again, work is a critical and noble part of what it means to be human, but it is far from our essence. We also exist to love, laugh, serve and hope.
Underlying both of these core beliefs is a denial of God — Karl Marx rejected any notion that religion was anything other than a creation of humans. He famously called religion “the opiate of the masses” and called for its abolition. As a result, Russia, Cambodia, North Korea, China and Cuba all (at least initially) banned all types of religious practice. If you believe, as we do at the Shire, that faith and religion are at the very essence of what it means to be human, then it is no surprise that misery and failure followed.
Because the Communists denied the existence of God, they looked elsewhere for their faith. They turned to a belief in the perfectibility of man and the promise of a utopian society. In the Communist worldview, Eden on earth could be achieved if the poor would rise up and take what is rightfully theirs from repressive owners of property.
From Rot Comes Destruction
In every case, the Communist philosophy has resulted in a totalitarian and violent state, which has been justified because the Communists were supposedly helping the poor. Pope Pius XI recognized this reality in 1931 in his Quradegismo anno: “Communism teaches and seeks two objectives: unrelenting class warfare and the complete eradication of private ownership. Not secretly or by hidden methods does it do this, but publicly, openly, and by employing any means possible, even the most violent. To achieve these objectives there is nothing it is afraid to do, nothing for which it has respect or reverence.” The Communists were (and are) willing to kill or imprison those people and groups who oppose them.
Thus, as practiced, Communism has always been totalitarian. From Russia to North Korea, and all regimes in between, Communists lead from a central authority and are repressive and brutal. It is often said (especially by Professors) that communism starts with good intent, but has been let down by its leaders. This is not a supportable proposition. For example, from the beginning, Lenin’s Russia fomented a civil war to crush all so-called “class enemies.” Only a few weeks into the revolution, Lenin called on the masses to “rise up spontaneously” since “for as long as we don’t treat speculators the way they deserve — with a bullet in the head — we will get nowhere at all.” Lenin soon expanded the purge to all prominent landowners, moderate intellectuals who had initially supported him, and even those peasants who owned a small farm or animals.
Lenin’s brutality was just the beginning. According to the “Black Book of Communism” (perhaps the best catalogue of the horrors of Communism in the 20th century), 85-100 million died from 1914 to 1991 at the hands of Communists. The enormity of the evil and destruction are hard to comprehend, but it is important to mark some specific examples:
- 6 million Ukranians died in 1932-1933 via executions, forced labor and due to a state-imposed famine designed to punish farmers for refusing to follow Communist collectivization orders.
- In a 1939 horror known as the Katyn Forest Massacre, Stalin approved the cold-blooded execution more than 20,000 Poles captured during World War II. The Soviet Union hid its actions and denied any culpability until 1990.
- As recounted brilliantly by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago, about 14 million Russians, many of whom were political prisoners or had committed petty offenses, were placed into prisons known as “Gulags.” Many were executed while imprisoned — hard, forced labor and torture were the norm.
- From 1966 to 1976, Chinese Communist leaders imposed a “Cultural Revolution” on China. Following the familiar script, they sought to purge elites from positions of authority and raise up the peasants. In the name of upending the bourgeois elite, Universities were closed, historical and cultural treasures destroyed, and many people executed.
- In the 1970’s, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge murdered between 1.7 and 3 million Cambodians in the name of remaking society towards a Communist utopia. The brutality of the killings were beyond comprehension — many victims were required to dig their own graves and then buried alive.
Cultural and religious iconography suffered as well. Stalin destroyed dozens of churches in Moscow, Ceaucescu destroyed the heart of Bucharest to remake Romania in his image, and Pol Pot obliterated Phnom Phen cathedrals.
So, Why is Communism Still Acceptable to Many?
In 1989, the Soviet Union’s Communist leadership fell, and the rest of Eastern Europe soon followed. It appears for a short time that Communism’s deadly ideology would be placed in the “dustbin of history.” Two decades on, however, Communism retains some respect and a following in many quarters. In a recent poll, Russians ranked Stalin as the “most outstanding person” in world history. When the murderous Fidel Castro died last year, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau called him a “remarkable” man and a “larger than life leader who served his people.” As recounted by Paul Hollander in his book Political Pilgrims, this fawning just continues the tradition of western leaders who have been duped or justified the evil of Communist regimes. But it’s not just elites — it is not uncommon to see people wearing Che Guevara (a supporter of Fidel Castro) t-shirts to this day. And, more ominously, various polls show that a many American Millennials prefer Socialism (Communism’s close-in counterpart) to Capitalism.
I think there are several reasons for the continued popularity, or at least polite acceptance, of Communism. As a historical matter, the unprecedented evil of Nazi Germany diverted attention from Communist atrocities. Nazi Germany’s horrors were almost unfathomable and fully exposed to the world after their defeat in World War II. The Communist’s evil was hidden by the rightful focus on the Nazis. Additionally, since the Soviet Union was allied with the West against Nazi Germany, it was easier to ignore the Soviet’s misdeeds.
But, that really doesn’t explain the continued acceptance of Communism given that the facts outlined above are now well known. Communism remains popular, or at least acceptable, in part because many want to believe in the ideals that Communism represents. Many believe that man can be perfected if only society was run by the right people. Others are attracted to class struggle or look to the state to bring social justice to the poor. Communism offers a tidy package containing all of those elements.
On this 100th anniversary, the threat posed by Communism has not faded away. We can do four things to address this threat. Our first job is to tell the true horror stories that result when that ideology is allowed to roam free. When people know these stories, they will be much less likely to fall for the Communist siren song. We also need to call out and oppose those leaders who seek to impose collectivist or class warfare ideology. We should also acknowledge that some of the issues raised by Communists are valid (including the need to provide opportunity to all, care for the poor, and ensure that justice is fairly administered) and work to ensure that our society delivers better solutions to those problems. Finally, we need to vigorously protect the rights of all people to worship God freely.
Communism is a bankrupt ideology that has brought suffering and death to millions around the globe. Unfortunately, the long “twilight struggle” against Communism and its ideas did not end in 1989 — we must remind people of its horrors and speak out against its remaining vestiges to ensure it does not rise again as a major force in the world.