Selected Skirmishes: New Soviet Man
"Soviet Communism has the guarantee not only of a continuous advance of technical science, but also the psychological discovery by the workers that the planning system eliminates the enemy party in the production distribution and exchange of commodities and services. The entire net product of the community is, in fact, shared among those who cooperate in its production, in whatever way they themselves decide, without tribute to an hereditary parasitic class. This produces an emotional passion for production among the millions of workers."
So wrote Beatrice Webb in her 1942 classic The Truth About Soviet Russia, co-ventured with Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw. In it, they hacked out a moral case for serious socialism: "In the USSR there is no distinction between the code professed on Sundays and that practised on weekdays…the only good life at which [the citizen] aims is a life that is good for all his fellow men."
The primary aim of such citizens more recently is to catch a fast train to the West. The keenest to depart are the young, particularly those born since the Webbs and Mr. Shaw wrote of the Happy Face of Bolshevism. These were the prodigies of communism and the Great Proletarian Hope for a better world where a selfless New Soviet Man would be molded from new values, thus abolishing old tyrannies.
How do we evaluate Ms. Webb's hypothesis in light of the multi-decade Marxist experiment? It would be dangerous to count the workers desperate to leave; every time the gate is opened just a crack, people loitering on the western side are trampled to death in the stampede out. It would be gratuitous to measure standards of living; while the old argument really was (check it out!) that communism would zip past alienated and increasingly impoverished capitalist economies, that issue has really been "buried" (although the corpse and funeral-goers envisioned by a shoeless Nikita swapped places). And the idea of the moral superiority of Soviet communism is, well, just kind of quaint. Elegant parlor chat for upscale British Fabians, but impolite (if not personally hazardous) to discuss in the presence of East European workers themselves.
The absurdity of the communist idea in practice has undoubtedly added to its cachet amongst Webb-footed intellectuals and their quack counterparts, the talk-show hosts. As the Walls of repression collapse all about us, the chairman of the virtually extinct Communist Party USA, Gus Hall, is wheeled out on "Donahue" and a Party advertisement tells booking agents: "If you want your airwaves to crackle with the electricity of audience response…then you need to present real live Communists on your show!" Buckle up for Geraldo's coming exposé: "Communism: Worldwide Liberator, or Satanic Mass Murder Machine—You be the judge!"
Satanic or no, the experiment has been profound. The technicians got to test the theory out on the Ukrainians, Serbs, Germans, Ethiopians, Cubans, Burmese, Koreans, Uzbeks, Mongols, Vietnamese, Chileans, Nicaraguans, Armenians, Lithuanians, and Chinese.
And they had every conceivable laboratory tool, including virtually unlimited use of modem weaponry, huge five-year plans, abundant prison space, sophisticated psychiatric treatment centers, well-funded electroshock apparatuses. They ran the whole show: the schools, the churches, the libraries, the universities, the press, the government. And they owned all the guns.
For crying out loud, they even got to kill 10 million to 20 million kulaks, 30 million to 40 million Chinese, and a couple million Cambodians (we're getting into rounding errors here). I offer this rule: If you're gonna kill tens of millions to promote a better tomorrow, you should have to be pretty damn certain about that better tomorrow being something fairly stupendous. The global scoreboard reveals that communism went 0-for-the-world.
Remember Finlandization? The fear was that the Russian Bear would cow the West, and the obsequiousness of Helsinki ("Oh, is that a Soviet sub out there in our harbor? No, it looks more like a very beefy smelt which swims upright and sticks out of the water halfway.") would infect the Common Market and the free, liberal states beyond. But the disease went into remission—and then reversed. It is now Russia which is being Finlandized.
But let's not be so clinical. The good guys have won. The bad dudes with their barbed wire and combat-ready gas masks and their Gulag and their Pravda (not to mention their dupes in the West) have been vanquished. They told the world that the people would get a fairer break from communism and, by Gosplan, would soon come to adore it. Well, 70 years later they left the back door unlocked, and a few million human beings poured out. Finally, the Communists really have created a social revolution. The celebration for mankind is the wake for socialism.
It should be a true People's Party, toasting an indomitable human spirit. The freedom trains out of Eastern Europe today teem with hordes schooled in Marx as the Great Friend of All the People, diapered in Workers' Paradise of the Soviet State papers (where available), kept abreast of daily events by the Truth, and nurtured from cradle to grave by the Rule of the Proletariat Masses Under the Gentle Guidance of Leninist Dialectics.
They are the experts on communism, and they are saying to the Party: Watch my dustbin. Because, with "an emotional passion for production," today's New Soviet Man…is a West German.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Selected Skirmishes: New Soviet Man".