The seeds of communist violence reside in romantic vision of an ideal society

Starting from the premise that the one thing we share with all other human beings is our ability to feel pain, one may say that the most basic human instinct is the instinct of self-preservation. Inevitably, we seek to overcome threats to our survival; we seek release from fear. Our most profound fears are fears of the unfamiliar: fear of darkness, fear of death, fear of the future. This is why we have always found comfort in ideas which offer release from these fears. Religions assure us of eternal life in heaven. Some political philosophies have gone even further, promising heaven on earth. The promise of an ideal society has historically taken two main forms: One is based on rejection of existing social malaise coupled with a vision of an idealized past. All we have to do, the theory goes, is roll back modernity so as to recreate a premodern, uncorrupt society. The other sees salvation in transcendence of the current condition via a forward flight to a future, utopian society. Both reject existing society and advocate that an ideal society is to be found at some other point in time, whether in the past or the future. Nazism (and fundamentalism) express the anti-modernist trend. Communism is an exemplar of the utopian kind. The belief in radical social change, at any cost, renders both visions romantic albeit intrinsically violent. However, while the atrocities of Nazi regimes are well known and admitted, those committed under communist rule are still taboo. Even when admitted, communist crimes are usually interpreted as the result of a distortion, a «wrong turn,» which has nothing to do with genuine, humanistic communist theory. A closer examination of communist philosophy, however, seems to suggest otherwise. It is Marxism’s infection with utopianism which transforms it into an unbearably violent religion. Marx, in fact, distinguished his theory from utopianism and denounced many of his followers as «utopian socialists.» In contrast, he claimed that his theory was scientific. Marx believed that he had discovered the laws that permeate the historical evolution of societies (historical materialism). Unlike utopian socialists, he thought of himself as being descriptive, not prescriptive. The cash value of this distinction (which is often ironed out or simply ignored) is that for Marx we are unable to change the course of history (all we can do, he says, is help shorten and lessen «the birth-pangs» of historical evolution). For utopianists, on the other hand, we can ourselves bring about the perfect state. This is where the break between Marxist theory and communist practice lies. Marx’s belief that history unfolds according to scientific laws – what the late political philosopher Karl Popper refers to as «historicism» – teamed with the utopianist will to construct a society on the basis of a blueprint transforms Marxism from an empirical science into a prophetic but also intolerable religion. Like all intolerant religions, communism persecutes the dissidents. Communism only endorses the values sanctioned by the historical process. Values lie at the end of history, the communist state; therefore human action is legitimated ex post facto, after the dialectic has fully unraveled. If an individual expresses values that are not in harmony with the historical moment, his life can be sacrificed in the name of the noble, collective end. The noble end, the communist state, justifies the means: terror, violence, repression. At all times, the individual must succumb to the iron rules of class struggle, as these are interpreted by the party. Anyone who hinders the actualization of the communist state must be eliminated. It remains unclear, of course, when the communist state will materialize. Lenin affirms that «it has never been vouchsafed to any communist to guarantee the advent of the higher phase of communism.» In «The Rebel,» Albert Camus writes, «It can be said that, at this point, freedom definitely died.» The ascent of an all-powerful bureaucracy is unavoidable for, as demonstrated by Popper’s devastating critique of utopianist planning, the communist aim of establishing an ideal society can only work along oligarchic lines. Even if driven by the best of intentions, the bureaucracy is bound to repress opposing voices, and with it reasonable criticism as well. Any opposition is denounced as sabotage or outside interference. Disagreements among the utopian planners are also to be resolved with violent methods. Under communist rule, all individuals are forced to serve a specific end regardless of whether they embrace that end or not. Any impulses not sanctioned by utopian planning are seen as undermining the course to the end and must be liquidated. The utopianist planner, Popper says, seeks «not only the transformation of society, according to plan, but also the transformation of man… for we ‘mold’ these men and women to fit into his new society.» Reality under communism is bent to fit a theoretical formula: If the facts do not agree with the theory, then all you have to do is change the facts. This motto is uncomfortably familiar to the citizens of former communist states. More than a decade after the collapse of communism, these people are still trying to shake off their jailhouse memories. Yet some unrepentant souls, tireless of being on the wrong side of history, still want communism. The question is, do they understand communism? And if they did, would they still want it? Communism was tried in 15 countries for more than 70 years. The horrifying results of communist practice in these states leave no doubt that something must be wrong with the theory per se. We need to abandon leftover illusions and accept that communist terror was unavoidable and not the offshoot of some mythical «wrong turn.» When the Trotskyites receive 11 percent in a French presidential election, there is certainly cause for sadness and concern.