Ron Radosh

The Continuing Appeal of Communism in the West

Just when you thought Communism was over, and no longer is a threat or has an appeal anywhere in the modern world, comes this dispatch. According to a three day meeting of experts on Czech Communism held recently in Prague, Communism still has a great appeal:

Communism is still a significant phenomenon and people may tend to see hope in it mainly in the times of a crisis, Jiri Kocian, deputy head of the Czech Science Academy’s Institute of Contemporary History, told CTK at the end of a three-day conference on communism Saturday.

According to the participants, many Czech citizens view the Communist era as one of “social certainties.”  In other words, they may not have had freedom, but they knew what they could get in terms of the basic necessities, insufficient as it may have been. The academic experts recommend that the textbooks in their country inform students what the reality of Communism was, and how it led to repression, political murder, and persecution. The experts made the following observation:

“The Communist Party is naturally more in focus of inhabitants at the moment when the state is coping with a certain crisis phenomenon,” said historian Jan Kalous, from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) that organised the conference along with the Institute of Contemporary History and the Czech Radio.

Kalous cited the example of the 1930s affected by the Great Depression starting in 1929.

Historian Jiri Pernes also said at the beginning of the conference that communism is a constant threat, among others because this ideology is comprehensible even for not very educated people.

Moreover, the poor will always blame the rich for their poverty and they will be striving for a change to their situation, Pernes added.

Two weeks ago, I spoke at a seminar in Prague convened by one of the sponsors of this meeting — The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes — on the topic of the uses in both the East and the West of the Rosenberg case and the Rudolf Slansky purge trial in Czechoslovakia which occurred contemporaneously in the mid 1950s. My audience was composed of some younger scholars, but mostly older contemporaries of the Communist era in Prague, who well remembered the reality of life under the Soviet satellite. I was told that today, few younger than they even know who Slansky was, and know anything about the reality of life under Communism. The findings of this recent meeting do not surprise me, since I had heard that during the discussion.

Do the experts’ conclusions sound familiar? Anyone see any resemblance to the calls of Occupy Wall Street? Indeed, the heart of the OWS complaints is the concept of “income inequality,” with the resulting call that income be redistributed so that the “poor” take more from the rich, so that all will be equal. The end result of such poor logic is the call to go to the large homes of wealthy citizens, measure the living space of their domiciles, and by government action move a number of poorer families into their residence to share their large living space. As many of us who know history recall, this is indeed what the Bolsheviks did in Soviet Russia after the October Revolution in 1917.

I happen to have some friends who consider themselves radical activists, but who live in a home for the two of them valued at well over a million dollars, but which has room for at least four or five other families. These people argue vociferously for income equality and redistribution of wealth, because it isn’t “fair,” and everyone deserves a good life. Hence they support a super high minimum wage via a new federal law, as well as every other legislative measure that would tax the rich at the highest level possible and produce equality of result by government action. I am always tempted to ask them to drive to the nearest ghetto, and invite some of the less fortunate to move in with them. Somehow, I don’t think had I made such a request, it would have been acted on. Indeed, I would probably be asked to promptly leave their premises and drive back home. They would have quickly slammed the front door in my face.

When I stayed some time ago at my friend Harvey Klehr’s home in Atlanta, I facetiously noted to him that it was a beautiful home, and that he should open it up to those less fortunate. Harvey looked at me and said, as we all would, “I worked hard for this and it’s mine. Sorry.” But Harvey is no radical, and he responded as most of us would.

I was told in Prague that a few weeks earlier, at the same Institute, the Polish editor and former dissident Adam Michnik, known as a moderate and not a firebrand conservative, spoke and without naming the group he was talking about, talked about the recent calls in America he had read about for equality and fairness. Michnik said he had heard such calls in his youth in Communist Poland, and saw no difference in what the current occupiers were calling for than what the Communists in his day in Poland had demanded.

The OWS crowd certainly don’t call themselves “communists.” If anything, those who get the most comment are self-proclaimed anarchists and others are socialists, radicals of various stripes, demagogues, anti-Semites, members of various fringe ultra-left groups like the Workers World Party and International Answer, and others of that ilk. But put together, they form a sometimes incoherent but nevertheless group of radical activists bent on overthrow of the system — not banking reform, political change in Washington, or anything remotely possible. Unlike the Tea Party activists, who moved to try and have a political influence, these protestors demand “revolution,” an all-encompassing phrase that means little but which reveals their favored stance.

Even Paul Berman, whose comments in The New Republic reveal the brilliant and subtle thinker succumbing to the revolutionary romanticism of his youth, writes the following:

Yes, yes, at Occupy Wall Street the madmen, the madwomen, the Groaners and the neo-Muggletonians will eventually have their day, and the movement will be ruined. Already the Maoists of the Revolutionary Communist Party are at work, together with Ron-Paul-ists, according to another of my informants. Visiting the demonstration on Thursday I noticed that the Workers World Party (which secretly controlled some of the big anti-Iraq War demonstrations, in the name of advancing the cause of North Korea) was already in evidence. The costumed neo-hippies and neo-anarchists will prove to be no match to the fanatics of Leninist discipline. Sooner or later the screw-ball groupuscules will wreck the whole thing. “Creative destruction” is originally Bakunin’s phrase, but the destructiveness of the Revolutionary Communist Party will not be creative. So the movement will stumble and fall, and a lot of young people will feel a little embittered and distraught.

I can excuse Berman for hoping that the message of Wall Street’s failures is the main concern of the occupiers — rather than the foolish remedies they are demanding. Yes, as he correctly writes, “Wall Street has led the country and the world over a cliff.” But OWS is doing very little to pressure for the kind of meaningful political change that will put them in their place. Instead, their actions are the self-destructive kind engaged in by all radical groups; the kind of dangerous remedies that Michnik alluded to in his Prague talk.

Among those supporting OWS are the Communist Party, U.S.A., and other similar groups that hark back to the Old Left. They are all, for good reasons, tying their cart to this new movement. Disciplined and organized, they will undoubtedly gain new recruits, because they have a message and a strategy, and an organizational institution that they pledge will lead to results. Hence they inform their members:

A big challenge for the CPUSA and left, progressive movements is to link these demonstrations with the labor led all-people’s coalition and help deepen understanding that the path to progress must be through electoral and political action including defeating Republican Tea Party reaction in 2012.

Of primary importance is linking it with the burgeoning fight for jobs and especially passage of the American Jobs Act.

We can also play a role in offering more advanced programmatic ideas like nationalizing the banks and socialism.

To have a positive impact, the CPUSA and YCL must be a part of the “Occupy” movement, participating at every level and building greater local support for the actions among labor and progressive forces.

Just as SDS in its earliest days welcomed Communists into its ranks, less they be accused of Red-baiting, the OWS occupiers too see the Communists as allies who have the same goals as they have. In that regard, the OWS crowd is right. There is little difference between what they want and the Communists want. In our country, the resurrection of communism as a creed will take place under a new guise. Today it is OWS; tomorrow it might be something else.

So, in our country as well as in the Czech Republic, the nostalgia for communism has its adherents and supporters.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple images.)