In the mid-1980s, in my student days at New Jersey's Rutgers University, I once got into an argument at the campus pub with a student activist who thought communism was unfairly maligned. (Back then, I had a reputation as a right-wing extremist because I didn't think it was crazy to call the USSR—from which my family and I had emigrated a few years earlier—an evil empire.) When I mentioned the tendency of communist regimes to rack up a rather high body count, the young man parried, "Well, what about all the people capitalism kills? Like the people who die from smoking so that tobacco companies can make money?"
Having recovered from shock at the sheer idiocy of this argument, I ventured to point out that cigarettes weren't exactly unknown behind the Iron Curtain. I don't recall where things went from there; but I was reminded of that conversation the other day, after reading an honest-to-goodness apologia for Communism on Salon.com, a once-interesting magazine that's rapidly becoming too embarrassing to list on my résumé.
The author, Occupy activist and writer Jesse Myerson, already caused some controversy last month with a Rolling Stone article that outlined a five-step plan toward eliminating inequality and collectivizing wealth. But at least in that piece, Myerson limited himself to extolling a visionary American brand of kumbaya communism rather than defend any of its actual, real-world versions. Here, in an article that purports to correct Americans' "misconceptions" about communism, he takes the further step of arguing that the real thing wasn't as bad as we think.
Among these alleged misconceptions: the notion that "Communism killed 110 million people for resisting dispossession." As an example, Myerson cites a comment by Fox News host Greg Gutfeld that "only the threat of death can prop up a left-wing dream, because no one in their right mind would volunteer for this crap. Hence, 110 million dead."
Where's the error? Well, says Myerson, the actual death toll probably wasn't 110 million. (True; it may have been just under 100 million, which makes it so much better.) Besides, Myerson argues, many of the people killed by the Soviet regime were not resisters against communist utopia or collectivization—they were themselves communists who ran afoul of Stalin.
But here, Myerson battles a straw man. Not even the fiercest anti-Communist has ever suggested that all the victims of the "left-wing dream" died in defense of property rights. Rather, building and sustaining a system based on expropriation required such levels of violent coercion that the repressive juggernaut inevitably began to crush its own—as well as random victims who were neither communists nor anti-communist resisters. (People would end up in the gulag because a spiteful neighbor reported them for a disrespectful remark about Stalin, or simply because the local authorities needed to meet their quota of arrests.)
Myerson offers other well-worn excuses: the Soviets had to fight a civil war, and also "faced (and heroically defeated) the Nazis." He leaves out the part where Stalin tried to team up with Hitler to gobble up Eastern Europe, refused to heed warnings of an attack for which he left his country shockingly unprepared, and then sent millions of untrained and barely armed recruits to certain slaughter.
As for Red China, Myerson acknowledges that tens of millions died in the famine that resulted from Mao's "Great Leap Forward"—"a disastrous combination of applied pseudoscience, stat-juking, and political persecution designed to transform China into an industrial superpower"—and then summarily dismisses the notion that communism might be to blame. "Famine," he explains, "is not a uniquely 'left-wing' problem." Not even, it seems, when that famine is caused directly by the policies of a left-wing regime.
Then, Myerson tries to make the case that capitalism is just as homicidal as communism—and, in a bold stroke of what passes for logic at Salon these days, includes in his indictment deaths that might happen in the future. Specifically, he wants capitalism held accountable for the future death toll from human-made, capitalism-driven climate change. Myerson might be terribly disappointed to learn that, just like smoking-related health problems, environmental degradation is not always the result of capitalist greed: in fact, it's widely believed to have been particularly bad under communist regimes.
Myerson's muddled screed might not merit a second thought if his defense of communism was just a personal eccentricity. Unfortunately, toned-down versions of such whitewashing are fairly common not only on the left but even in mainstream liberal opinion. In 2005, reviewing the book, Mao: the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff chided the authors for their overly negative view of the subject: "Mao, however monstrous, also brought useful changes to China. … Mao's legacy is not all bad." This rose-tinted view also explains why Westerners who dote on mass-murdering dictators of the left, such as folksinger and onetime Stalin devotee Pete Seeger, tend to get a pass from the media as misguided idealists with their heart in the right place.
The motives behind the reluctance of the left, including many liberals, to fully acknowledge communism's evil are stated with startling candor by the late leftist writer/journalist Daniel Singer in a 1999 essay in The Nation reviewing The Black Book of Communism, the monumental study of communist terror and repression compiled by a team of historians. Such a one-sided account, Singer lamented—missing the good bits such as "enthusiasm, construction, the spread of education and social advancement"—makes it impossible to understand why so many Western leftists were drawn to communism and willing to overlook its crimes. Besides, he wrote, communism's record of atrocity was being used to discredit "the possibility of radical transformation" and force people to resign themselves to the status quo. In other words: coming to grips with communism's true nature makes the Western left look bad and discourages the quest for utopia.
Singer wrote that communism's detractors "idealize the Western world." In fact, few would deny that liberal capitalism, historically and today, has plenty of flaws—though many of the sins the left lays at its doorstep, from imperialism to racism, and other prejudices, are near-universal traits of human civilization which liberal capitalism has done much to ameliorate. Anti-utopianism does not preclude seeking positive change; it merely cautions against an uncompromising quest for perfection that may recklessly destroy the good—and against seeking change by coercive means.
For all the revelations, the romanticized view of communism as a failed but noble venture has yet to get a stake through the heart. Just last weekend, narrating an NBC News segment on the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics and surveying Russian history, actor Peter Dinklage referred to "the revolution that birthed one of modern history's pivotal experiments." That brings to mind an old-time Soviet joke in which a schoolboy asks his father if Marxism-Leninism is a science. "I reckon not, son," the father replies. "When scientists do experiments, it's always on animals, not humans."