Let's Hold Off On The Communistalgia, Shall We?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 12, 2009

I shall never understand why rational and intelligent people oftentimes go all weak-in-the-knees for communism. Evidently, Marxist thought is fashionable again because of the financial crisis and recession we have gone through, but as John Gray explains, communistalgia is nothing short of insane:

One of the many virtues of David Priestland’s The Red Flag is that it places communism squarely in this tradition. Citing Marx’s description of Prometheus as “the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar”, Priestland shows how Marx’s Promethean world-view has animated communist movements and regimes throughout their history. In the preface to his dissertation, Marx wrote, in the words of Aeschylus: “In sooth all gods I hate. ‘Tis better to be bound on a rock than bound to the service of Zeus.” In Marx’s variation on the Promethean myth, heroic humanity wages war against religion, inequality and subservience to nature.

Priestland shows that this modern mythology was propagated right up to the end of communist Russia. As a graduate student at Moscow State University in 1987-88, studying (in secret) Stalin’s Terror half a century earlier, he found himself “at the centre of a curious communist civilisation: my neighbours had come from all corners of the communist world – from Cuba to Afghanistan, from East Germany to Mozambique, from Ethiopia to North Korea – to take degrees in science and history, but also to study ‘scientific communism’ and ‘atheism’, the better to propagate communist ideology at home . . . The system was unravelling and revealing its secrets, but it was still communist.”

Just over 20 years later, that curious communist civilisation has all but vanished from the face of the earth. There are still states ruled by communist parties – Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and China – and the last ruling communist party in Europe was pushed out of power only a few weeks ago in Moldova. But except for North Korea and, in a limited way, Cuba, no country anywhere is governed, even in theory, by any version of Marxism. Marxist-Leninist insurrectionist movements still exist, with remnants of the Shining Path still active in Peru and Maoists leading a coalition government in Nepal for a time. But the new civilisation that Lenin believed he had founded in 1917, which Sidney and Beatrice Webb admired in the 1930s after touring Ukraine at the height of the famine, and which for all its faults western progressives believed was unshakeable, has ceased to exist.

No surprise as to why. I’m reading Main Currents of Marxism these days, in which Leszek Kolakowski, who traces the long intellectual history behind Marxism and whose works have helped show why the concept of “democratic socialism” is, in Kolakowski’s words, as “contradictory as a fried snowball.” It seems as though the lesson is lost on some. Heaven help us if this means that bad economic policies are in the offing merely because certain people don’t remember their history.

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