Rose-Colored Glasses

What even disillusioned Marxists missed


Few anti-communist works have had more influence or a longer shelf life than The God That Failed (1950), edited by Richard Crossman, a left-wing Labour member of the British Parliament. Its essays of political disillusionment by eminent authors—Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Stephen Spender, Louis Fischer, and André Gide—portray the varied appeal of communism to its intellectual devotees. The contributors make vivid and credible the growing ambivalence of their involvement in the interwar communist movement, the cognitive dissonance of remaining allied long after they should have recognized the betrayal of their ideals, and the pain and ethical necessity of their final break.

In English, the book has evolved from testament to historical artifact. The first American edition of 1950 was reprinted almost without pause in hardcover and then paperback until the late 1970s. In the 1980s, Regnery published the collection with an introduction by Norman Podhoretz, who decried the authors' failure to choose the liberal West as the logical alternative to communism. The latest edition comes from Columbia University Press, with a scholarly introduction by historian David C. Engerman.

Because of the tactical importance of left-wing anti-communism, many of the book's authors were favored during the early Cold War by a CIA that found them of great value in weaning the international left from the pro-Soviet communist movement. Engerman is mesmerized by U.S. government support of The God That Failed, and his "Foreword" is historically misleading, claiming that the book "defined a new paradigm for Western intellectual life in the Cold War: American-centered, closely tied to political power, and staunchly anti-Soviet." Only the last characterization is correct.

Not one essay in The God That Failed is remotely pro-American or written in defense of what remained of American liberalism, let alone the "political power" of liberal forces. Crossman, a leader of the "Keep Left" movement, argued that the appeal of Marxism was that "it exploded liberal fallacies—which really were fallacies." Seeing the intellectual underpinnings of free enterprise as the belief in "automatic Progress" and the denial "that boom and bust are inherent in capitalism, " Crossman wrote that "no intelligent man after 1917" could have chosen liberal "dogma"; given only two choices, any honest mind would have chosen communism. Fortunately, as Crossman saw it, "two world wars and two totalitarian revolutions" had taught the Western democracies the need for democratic central planning.

Koestler compared his time with the Communist Party to Jacob's finding himself with Leah rather than Rachel. Communism had presented itself under false appearances. He hoped that he, like Jacob, would be given, after appropriate labor, the reality of Rachel. Ignazio Silone spoke of his "faith in Socialism" being "more alive than ever in me." Socialist theories, he decided, were transient and unimportant, but "socialist values" were "permanent." On the basis of them, "one can found a culture, a civilization, a new way of living together among men." Of the communists, Richard Wright concluded: "They're blind….Their enemies have blinded them with too much oppression." He said to himself, "I'll be for them, even though they are not for me."

André Gide was disillusioned with communism because of Soviet constraints on artistic independence and, above all, because the Soviet Union still had "privileges and differences where I hoped to find equality." Soviet workers "are no longer exploited by shareholding capitalists, but nevertheless they are exploited," he wrote, and "all the bourgeois vices and failings are still dormant, in spite of the Revolution." Stalin's Russia, for Gide, was "the same old capitalist society."

Louis Fischer, turning to Gandhi for inspiration, called for a "Double Rejection" of competing liberal and communist systems. Stephen Spender was emphatic in his own form of double rejection. Although he held out no hope for communism, "if it could achieve internationalism and the socialization of the means of production," he thought, it "might establish a world which would not be a mass of automatic economic contradictions." He assured his readers that "no criticism of the Communists removes the arguments against capitalism." Indeed, "America, the greatest capitalist country, seems to offer no alternative to war, exploitation, and destruction of the world's resources." Some new "American-centered" paradigm!

In fact, it was only the voices of Hayek, Mises, and their few disciples that correctly identified the source of the unspeakable horrors of both Nazism and Bolshevism: the willingness—indeed, the desire—to use the force of government to plan other people's economic and moral lives. In terms of those horrors, the authors of The God That Failed objected, above all, to the purge of intellectuals and of communists more honorable than Stalin and his party hacks. To understand truly and with moral clarity the "god" these essayists worshipped, it is better to read The Black Book of Communism by Stéphane Courtois et al., or The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn , which present in scholarship and moral witness, respectively, the largest holocaust of the 20th century, the Red holocaust.

No cause in the history of mankind has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than communism. It surpassed, exponentially, all other systems of production in turning out the dead. No one honors those dead. No one does penance for them. No one pays for them. No one is hunted down to account for them. It is exactly what Solzhenitsyn foresaw in The Gulag: "No, no one would have to answer." Communism was not a "god that failed." Rather, it was an intellectually organized slaughter and slavery that succeeded, but that could not sustain itself against the productivity and resistance of free men and women.