You may never have heard of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. But if you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll probably want to know about it, for it’s an institution that seeks to address a profound need that lies very close to the heart of our own efforts: namely, the extraordinary ignorance of the brutal reality of Communism in today’s America, especially on the part of young people.
The extent of that ignorance was underscored on October 17 by the foundation’s own annual report on American attitudes toward socialism and Communism. The executive director of VOC, Mario Smith, summed those findings up as follows: “An emerging generation of Americans have little understanding of the collectivist system and its dark history.” While older generations are aware of the evils of Communism, millennials (born between 1982 and 2002) aren’t. This makes sense, of course. The fall of the Iron Curtain occurred before they were born or when they were small children. They’ve been taught about the evils of Nazism, but little about Communism. They know about the Holocaust, but probably not about the Gulag.
The VOC’s sobering numbers confirm this ignorance. According to the study, only 18% of American millennials can place the name of Josef Stalin; the comparable figures for Lenin and Mao Zedong are 42% and 33%. The inevitable result of this profound ignorance of Communism is a disturbingly benign attitude toward it. While 91% of older Americans and 80% of baby boomers view Communism negatively, only 55% of millennials do. Fully 25% of millennials who recognized the name of Lenin actually view him favorably.
This sympathy for Communism surely owes a lot to baby-boom teachers or professors who, when they have touched on Communism, have actually treated it sympathetically. Instead of underscoring the fact that the regimes of Hitler and Stalin were equally totalitarian, many of those supposed educators have drawn sharp distinctions between Nazism and Communism, pronouncing the former as unqualifiedly evil but depicting the latter as a beautiful dream that perhaps got just a wee bit out of control. In recent decades, school syllabi touching on Communism have focused less on the horrors of life in the USSR and more on the purported victimization of American Communists during the era of the Hollywood blacklist. In this formulation, the villain of the piece is not Stalin but Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Consequently, almost 45% of millennials actually say they would vote for a socialist president – a statistic that might have been surprising before the Bernie Sanders campaign, but perhaps isn’t so surprising now. Fully 32% of millennials actually believe more people were killed under George W. Bush than under Stalin. (The figure for Americans generally isn’t much better: 25%.)
Much of the millennial sympathy for socialism and Communism can be attributed to the widespread use, in high-school and colleage history courses, of a single book entitled A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1922-2010). We’ll get to him tomorrow.
Yesterday we caught up with British columnist Julie Burchill, who on September 5 toldreaders of the New Statesman about her youthful enthusiasm for Josef Stalin.
“I don’t kiss, I’m a Stalinist,” I’d often say. “But you’ve just had sex with me!” “Yes, it would have been bourgeois not to.”
And: “I don’t smoke dope – I’m a Stalinist.” “But you’ve just snorted half a gram of speed!” “Yes, I’m a Stakhanovite, too, and it makes me work harder.” I had answers for everything, all of them mad.
During her early years in London, recalled Burchill, she hung out with punks who played at anarchism; Stalinism, for her, proved to be a good way to one-up them. They were all into radical individualism; she reacted by saying things like, “People aren’t really that interesting, there’s not much to be said for individuals.” Stalinism gave her an instant look, a style: she wore Soviet badges and ribbons and caps and “used to admire myself in them,” fancying herself “a sexy teenage communist.” But, she added, “I spat blood whenever I saw a fellow punk sporting a swastika. Why? What was the difference? My side had killed 20 million.”
Burchill admits that her Stalin crush lasted “well into my thirties,” and calls this “a sign of my terminal emotional immaturity.” It finally ended not because she had “a big, blinding moment of revelation, repentance and redemption” but because “I am a chillingly pragmatic person, I fear, and in the end Stalin simply outlived his usefulness.” To be sure, now and then she “backslide[s]”:
Last month, I woke up in bed with a small, silver bust of Lenin on the pillow next to me, purchased on a drunken romp the day before. I hated myself for a bit, but it could have been worse. Gagged and blindfolded with Zionist wristbands, he looks lovely on the mantelpiece. And at least he’s not Stalin – though, to be honest, the shop where I bought him didn’t have a Stalin bust. If it had, could I have resisted? I hope I’ll never find out.
What to make of all this? It’s not quite a mea culpa. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly. Burchill admits to being “chillingly pragmatic” and afflicted with “terminal emotional immaturity,” but she shows no sign of being ashamed of these attributes. She doesn’t really seem to be ashamed of anything: she’s cheerfully amoral, chronically solipsistic. It’s tempting to dismiss her column as the thousandth (or ten thousandth?) effort by a narcissistic hack to stun the multitudes yet again and thus remain in the limelight for another day or two.
But Burchill isn’t unique. She certainly wasn’t the first or last vain, puerile young person to decide that it’s cool to applaud totalitarism. If her story has any value, perhaps it’s as a reminder that not all useful stooges are mature individuals who’ve either coldly, consciously, and calculatingly sold their souls to the devil or whose serious, well-intentioned philosophical reflections have led them disastrously astray. No, some useful stooges are nothing more than children – or terminally childish adults – who have embraced a deadly ideology for the most superficial of reasons: to turn a few heads, to give their friends a bit of a shock, and to impress their Stalinist daddies.
Largely forgotten nowadays, Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) was a British author, famous in his time for a series of children’s books that, in the words of his biographer Roland Chambers, “epitomised the plain talking and simple moral values that once made the empire great” and, “with their pastoral, old-fashioned view of Britain, shaped the imagination of a generation.” Ransome also wrote biographies of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, the latter of which led to a celebrated trial at which Ransom defended himself (successfully) against a libel charge leveled by Lord Alfred Douglas.
But there was another chapter to Ransome’s career. It started in 1913, when he traveled to Russia thinking that it just might provide a good setting for a fairy tale or two. He ended up reporting (in turn) on World War I, on the Kerensky and Lenin revolutions, and on the Bolshevik government, whose leading figures he befriended. He even roomed with Leon Trotsky’s second-in-command – and married Trostky’s secretary.
And eventually, he became a vocal champion of pretty much everything Lenin’s government did. As Chambers puts it, Ransome “defended censorship of the press, the suppression of democracy, and even downplayed execution without trial.” When Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB), admitted that his agency was synonymous with terror, “a terror that is absolutely essential in the revolutionary period we are passing through,” Ransome stood up for that, too.
What a piece of work! When he wasn’t comparing Lenin to Oliver Cromwell and denying the Red Terror, Ransome was praising Trotsky for “his ‘merciless’ suppression of the White Guards and other ‘bloodsucking’ counter-revolutionaries.” In his reportage, meanwhile, he was a liar on the scale of Walter Duranty, consistently reassuring British readers that the Bolsheviks were doing their best to keep bloodshed at a minimum. To quote one reviewer’s tongue-in-cheek summing-up: “Soldiers were shooting their officers, yes, but they did so with admirable restraint.”
Unsurprisingly, many British officials considered Ransome a Communist, pure and simple. But no other Brit could come close to matching his Kremlin access, and so – as shown by MI5 archives made public in 2005 – MI6 recruited him in 1918 as a spy.
Recently released Soviet archives have also shed light on Ransome’s story. One question that still remains, however, is whether he was actually a double agent –a man whose ultimate loyalty was not to London but to Moscow. Admittedly, there’s no absolute proof either way. But we do know that he and his wife Evgenia smuggled diamonds from the USSR to help fund the Communist movement in Western Europe. We also know he owned a lavish yacht that must have cost a bundle – more cash, certainly, than most British reporters would have been able to scrape together, and more, apparently, than could be accounted for by his MI6 paycheck. “Had this money,” asks one observer, “been earned from the INO, an intelligence-gathering branch of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s sinister Cheka?” Good question.
It’s unclear, then, whether Ransome was a traitor. But he was, unquestionably, a useful stooge – or, to use the famous phrase that his comrade Lenin might actually have coined with him in mind, a useful idiot.
Not everyone who fought against the Nazis was fighting for freedom. The Red Army, after all, was fighting for Communism, which the Soviets promptly forced upon the occupied countries of eastern Europe after the war.
In the same way, not all of those who battled apartheid were believers in liberty.
Meet Ronnie Kasrils.
Born in 1938, the grandson of Baltic Jews who fled tsarist pograms to live in South Africa, Kasrils has been called Africa’s “highest-profile revolutionary from the white race.” A member of both the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party since 1960, he spent 27 years in exile owing to his ANC activities, studying at a military academy in the USSR and then doing ANC work in London and in various African capitals. The ANC in exile, wroteR. W. Johnson in the National Interest in 2013, “was both corrupt and Stalinist,” supporting the Soviet invasions of both Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Kasrils was nothing if not an ardent devotee of Stalin, who at one point described George Orwell’s Animal Farm as “crude, anti-Communist propaganda.”
Returning home after the end of apartheid, Kasrils joined the ruling committees of both the ANC and the Communist Party. But he was dissatisfied with the new regime, criticizingNelson Mandela for taking the ANC down a “bourgeois” path instead of forming a “people’s republic” – that is, a Communist government. Instead of holding “on to its revolutionary will,” he charged, the ANC had “chickened out,” making a “devil’s pact, only to be damned in the process.” Citing Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Che Guevara, Kasrils insistedthat a “true rebel would not have accepted” the “global corporate capitalism” that, in his view, was deforming South Africa.
Naturally, he lamented the loss in 1991 of “our once powerful ally, the Soviet Union,” whose collapse destroyed his faith in “the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles.” Still, he predicted in his 1993 autobiography, Armed and Dangerous, that “in years to come humanity will look back to Soviet achievements as a source of profound inspiration.”
Despite his misgivings about the direction South Africa took after apartheid, Kasrils accepted one high-ranking government position after another, serving as a member of Parliament (1994-2008), as Deputy Minister of Defence, as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, and as Minister of Intelligence. In the last-named post, according to one informed observer, Kasrils managed to turn the country’s intelligence service into “an international laughingstock,” marked by “unending, ungovernable, internecine battles” and other horrors that went beyond “even the ugliest Stalinist traditions of the African National Congress.”
Meanwhile, Kasrils became a leading booster of the Palestinian cause and a fierce critic of Israel, which he routinely described as an apartheid state – a charge that outraged some South Africans, one of whom called it “a gross insult to every black South African who suffered under apartheid.” In a 2007 speech,Kasrils went even further, maintaining that Israel was subjecting the Palestinians to “hardships and methods of control that are far worse than anything our people faced during the most dreadful days of apartheid.” In an interviewthe same year, he further intensified his rhetoric, calling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “a thousand times worse” than apartheid. He also compared it to “what my grandmother used to tell me about the pogroms: The Cossacks are coming, the Cossacks are coming.” Finally, pulling out all the stops, he accused Israel of “genocide.”
While accusing Israel of the most horrific kinds of crimes against humanity, Kasrils has routinely made excuses for even the most barbaric actions by Palestinians – for example, calling suicide bombers “martyr bombers.” He’s even urged Israeli Jews “to succumb to Islamic rule,” maintaining “that the Jews actually thrived under Islamic rule.” It was no surprise to see his name, a few years back, on the list of members of the notorious Russell Tribunal on Palestine (2009-12), which whitewashed Palestinian atrocities and demonized Israel. As South African justice Richard J. Goldstone wrote in the New York Times just prior to its third session, in Cape Town, the convocation was not really a “tribunal” at all: “The ‘evidence’ is going to be one-sided and the members of the ‘jury’ are critics whose harsh views of Israel are well known.”
For years, many members of the U.S. news media treated the chavista regime in Venezuela with far more respect than it deserved. Hugo Chávez, Americans were told, might not be perfect – he might not, for example, be as devoted to democratic principles as some of us might prefer – but he was a true hero, using his power (albeit quite ruthlessly at times) to bring fairness and equality to his country.
If there’s anything good about the current economic decline of Venezuela, it’s that such glowing reports are now rather thin on the ground – almost as thin, indeed, as many an indigent Venezuelan who goes to bed hungry every night because there’s nothing on the grocery shelves.
One prominent instance of the new media frankness about Venezuela was a January 29 article in the Washington Post, in which Matt O’Brien explained that both that country’s government and its economy “are well into their death throes.” Experts, he noted, now “expect Venezuela to default on its debt in the very near future. The country is basically bankrupt.” This, even though it has “the largest oil reserves in the world.” But as O’Brien pointed out, that’s the genius of chavista socialism.
The recipe for this disaster? Hand out freebies you can’t pay for. Replace skilled officials at the state-owned oil company with incompetent friends of the regime. And when the money runs out, just start printing more. Quoth O’Brien: “Lenin was wrong. Debauching the currency is actually the best way to destroy the socialist, not the capitalist, system.”
Thanks to the wisdom of chavismo, Venezuela’s supermarkets have empty shelves, the breweries don’t have “enough hops to make beer,” its factories have insuffienct “pulp to produce toilet paper,” and so on. “The only thing Venezuela is well-supplied with are lines,” wrote O’Brien. Long, long lines of people waiting to buy things that are in short supply – if they’re in stock at all. Readers will recall that we’ve already discussed this socialist triumph on this site; the one new twist here, identified by O’Brien, is that the Venezuelan government has actually started rationing spots on those grocery-store queues, “kicking people out of line based on the last digit of their national ID card.”
A February 3 article by Kejal Vyas in the Wall Street Journal provided some more illuminating details.“Millions of pounds of provisions, stuffed into three-dozen 747 cargo planes, arrived here from countries around the world in recent months to service Venezuela’s crippled economy,” reported Vyas from Caracas. But the “provisions” to which Vyas was referred weren’t food items or medical supplies – they were shipments of currency, “at least five billion” freshly printed bank notes, which reportedly doubled the amount of cash in circulation.
What does this stunning development portend? We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Robert Conquest, the Anglo-American historian whose works on the Soviet Union, most importantly The Great Terror (1968), confronted useful stooges on both sides of the Atlantic with facts that severely hobbled their efforts to whitewash Stalin, is dead at 98. From his London Times obituary: “The leftwingers who denied the crimes of Stalin did so, Robert Conquest always maintained, because the truth of his terrible purges was “beyond the capacity of their provincial imaginations.”
The Spectator today reprints a 1961 essay in which Conquest, responding to a letter to the London Times from many bien pensant British cultural types who were exercised about the recent Bay of Pigs invasion, wrote, in his powerfully understated way, “There is something particularly unpleasant about those who, living in a political democracy, comfortably condone terror elsewhere.” And the New York Times quotes Stanford University historian Norman M. Naimark: “His historical intuition was astonishing….He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”
The New York Times also cites a limerick that Conquest wrote in reply to those critics who, accepting his verdict on Stalin, still sought to salvage the heroic image of Lenin and to paint Uncle Joe as a deviation from Leninism:
There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.
Here, from his 1999 book Reflections on a Ravaged Century, is a passage that exemplifies the effectiveness of his cool, analytical approach to the mentality of the useful stooge:
For a useful, almost classical demonstration of the revolutionary mind-warp, the motivation behind acceptance of a totalitarian Idea, we turn to an interview given by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm on “The Late Show,” 24 October 1994….When Michael Ignatieff asked him to justify his long membership of the Communist Party, he replied: “You didn’t have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn’t going to be a future and this was the only thing that offered an acceptable future.”
Ignatieff then asked: “In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?”
Hobsbawm answered: “This is a sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible. Erm … I don’t actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, `Probably not.'”
Ignatieff asked: “Why?”
Hobsbawm explained: “Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I’m looking back at it now and I’m saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.”
Ignatieff then said: “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?”
Hobsbawm immediately said: “Yes.”
It will be seen that, first, Hobsbawm accepted the Soviet project not merely on the emotional ground of “hope” but on the transcendental one of its being the “only” hope. Then, that he was justified because, although it turned out wrong, it might have turned out right (and it was not only a matter of deaths, but also of mass torture, falsification, slave labor). Finally, that he believes this style of chiliastic, absolutist approach to reality is valid in principle.
R.I.P. Robert Conquest: scourge of useful stooges everywhere.
James Kirchick, writing in the DailyBeast last year, called him “perhaps the most infamous American apologist for the Russian government.” Eschewing the word “perhaps,” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine identified him as “[t]he most prominent intellectual apologist for Putin.” And Cathy Young of Slate called him “the Kremlin’s No. 1 American apologist.”
We’re talking – again – about Stephen F. Cohen, America’s highest-profile Russia “expert.” He’s vigorously rejected his critics’ characterizations of him, insisting: “I am the only American patriot.” He’s made a career of labeling those who don’t share his take on Russia as ignoramuses and/or liars, but these days he’s gotten into the habit of expressing righteous outrage at those lesser beings who now dare to put him down for his outrageously Putin-friendly views. To criticize him on such grounds, he says, is “scurrilous” and “defamatory.” His critics, he declares, are “neo-McCarthyites” who “are trying to stifle democratic debate by stigmatizing” him. And yet, himself using a McCarthyite term, he’s argued that it’s “un-American” for his critics to challenge his pro-Putin statements as robustly as they have; such intense criticism, he says, is “a form of censorship.”
Funny that a guy who defends Putin – who engages in real censorship, to the point of having his critics beaten up, imprisoned, tortured, and killed – should accuse other folks of censorship just because they don’t share his perverse admiration for this tyrant.
Funny, too, that a radical leftist who used to shill for the USSR should become an equally fervent apologist for Putin – a man who, despite his KGB history, is usually categorized as a right-wing nationalist. Or maybe not so funny? After all, the Kremlin is still the Kremlin. No, Moscow’s corridors of power may no longer be decorated with portraits of Marx and Engels and Lenin, but, hey, you can’t have everything.
Think of it this way: for Cohen, this whole business isn’t just about Russia. It’s also very much about America. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that, in the eyes of far-left types like Cohen, the fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t a blessing but a disaster – because it made America the world’s sole superpower. We’re talking here about people who, quite simply, don’t view America as a benign force in the world. They’re eager to see America contained, humbled, kept in check. And the simple fact is that an aggressive, autocratic, nationalistic Russia can do that just as well as an aggressive, autocratic, Communist USSR.
Indeed, to listen to Cohen, it’s America, not Putin’s Russia, that is the real aggressor in this match-up. Take the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which denies U.S. visas to Russian officials responsible for the 2009 death of human-rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The law passed both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support and was signed by President Obama. Human-rights groups around the world praised the law, as did pro-democracy activists in Russia; polls showed that most Russians supported it, too. But Cohen savaged the act, calling it “a very harsh Cold War law,” and even signed a statement denouncing it.
Or consider his take on NATO – a classic case of through-the-looking-glass thinking. Consistently, Cohen speaks of NATO as a brutal threat – not a defense against a brutal threat. Putin’s saber-rattling in Eastern Europe is understandable, Cohen argues, because “twenty years of NATO’s eastward expansion has caused Russia to feel cornered.” He ignores entirely the fact that if Russia were a genuinely free country with no belligerent international ambitions, it wouldn’t perceive NATO expansion as a threat; on the contrary, a truly free Russia could itself be a member of NATO.
But then again, just as in the Cold War days, the word “freedom” is barely in Cohen’s vocabulary. He actually told an RT interviewer that the U.S. has, in effect, said to NATO members in Eastern Europe that they “can punch Russia in the nose and hide behind NATO.” In other words, Cohen has the nerve to depict countries like Estonia and the Czech Republic – which for decades were subjugated and brutalized by Moscow – as anti-Russian aggressors. And he talks as if NATO had forced itself on these countries, rather than being invited and gratefully welcomed by them as a bulwark of their freedoms.
It’s bizarre: Cohen endlessly asserts Russia’s right to act in its own national interest, but he seems not to recognize the right of any former Soviet republic or satellite to its own national interest. If Poland or Ukraine or Latvia perceives Putin’s Russia as a threat to its freedom and sovereignty, why shouldn’t it be allowed to do whatever it feels is necessary in its own defense – including join NATO?
For a long time, Cohen’s routine answer to this question was simple and confident: Putin, he averred, doesn’t represent a threat to any of his neighbors. In speech after speech and interview after interview, Cohen contended it was “ridiculous” to think Putin would make a military move into Ukraine or Poland or the Baltics.
Then Putin invaded Ukraine.
Yet even that invasion didn’t silence Cohen. He continued to treat the liberation of the Eastern European and Baltic nations a quarter-century ago – and the aspiration of their citizens to become full members of the Free World – as offenses against Russia by an aggressive U.S. Clearly, the very concept of a “Free World,” or of its opposite, is off Cohen’s radar. For him, none of this is about freedom or tyranny – it’s about spheres of influence. Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union for most of the twentieth century; it’s been an independent country for just over a couple of decades; ipso facto, it’s a part of Russia’s proper sphere of influence.
Which, for Cohen, means that the Ukrainian people’s own desires are irrelevant. If most of them want to be closer to the West, which for them means freedom and peace and prosperity, than to Russia, which means the opposite of all those things – well, too bad for them. Ditto the Lithuanians, the Slovaks, and the rest. Because they were once part of the totalitarian Soviet empire, Russia has the right to an unquestioned “sphere of influence” over all of them – a right, even, to re-conquer them, if it wishes, and turn these now free and democratic nations back into exploited and terrorized subject states. Freedom be damned.
It’s a detestable way of thinking – a morally repellent legitimization of the Russification of the Soviet “republics” after 1917, and of Stalin’s Communization of Eastern Europe after World War II. But this is precisely the view of Putin’s Russia that Cohen now preaches in the media – and, presumably, to his students at New York University.
Which raises the question: how does NYU feel about the fact that a member of its faculty is a one-man PR outfit for a tyrant?