How many readers, I wonder, are familiar with this history of atrocity and denial, except in a vague way? How many know the name of Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s principal henchmen in the famine? What about other chapters large and small in the history of Communist horror, from the deportation of the Crimean Tatars to the depredations of Peru’s Shining Path to the Brezhnev-era psychiatric wards that were used to torture and imprison political dissidents?These are good questions, but they do have answers.
Why is it that people who know all about the infamous prison on Robben Island in South Africa have never heard of the prison on Cuba’s Isle of Pines? Why is Marxism still taken seriously on college campuses and in the progressive press? Do the same people who rightly demand the removal of Confederate statues ever feel even a shiver of inner revulsion at hipsters in Lenin or Mao T-shirts?
The first is that nobody has clean hands. All the major religions have murderous extremists in their pasts; all nation states were forged in blood. Capitalism has its own long list of crimes, from the machine-gunning of striking coal miners to drug-price profiteering. One of its crimes, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, had a toll in misery and death that enters the same hellish league as those of Hitler and Stalin. If we have to reject any big idea that has at any time helped to cause cruelty and murder we are going to be left with very few big ideas.
The second is that none of these denunciations – of red terror, Nazi monstrosity, Confederate perfidy, capitalist complicity in the slave trade – has much to do with either morality or history. They are rhetorical moves in contemporary politics. The point of demanding the removal of Confederate statues is to emphasize the historical plight of African Americans and press for greater political attention to their needs. Brett Stephens is alarmed by Che t-shirts because he fears a new wave of leftism led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and he wants to fight this new leftism by tying it to Stalin and the ongoing collapse of Venezuela.
The third is psychological, and more complicated. Many people are outraged about the current state of the United States and Britain. It maddens them to see that some people are billionaires while others go hungry; that some people can work all their lives and never earn what a clever take-over artist can profit from a single stock scam; that poor people who can't afford bail spend years in jail and end up pleading guilty to felonies as the only way they can get out, while rich people with good lawyers can get away with murder. Some people express this outrage by getting interested in communism, or at least wearing Che t-shirts. The point is not to endorse Maoism, it is to say that they are not ok with things as they are. This slides into a fourth point, which is that many people are drawn in psychological and philosophical ways to extremism. Systems like those of the US and Britain are mushy gruels made from compromise after compromise, spawning bureaucracies with hair-splitting rules and lawyers who get rich devising ways to game the system.
Faced with the monstrous edifice of the mixed-economy-semidemocratic-legalist-bureaucratic-police state, which can only be budged in minor ways by ordinary politics, some people long to sweep it all away and start over. Intellectuals seem particularly prone to this fantasy. Like purist programmers who recoil from a gigantic "kluge" like Windows, they long for a clean, simple system in which principles lead to rules in a clear, logical way. They want justice to shine forth like the sun, not be hidden behind roiling clouds of interest, tradition, profit, legislative horse-trading, and whatever else so befouls the air of our times.
I believe that life among social mammals can never be simple and neat, that we are condemned by our very natures to compromise solutions. I also believe that the huge nations and bewildering economies of modern times only make that more true. Given that our social and economic systems are so complex that nobody comes close to understanding them, I think that gigantic kluges are the best that we can possibly do. But I understand the frustration our systems breed, and the longing for a radical solution. So I don't mind if people vent their frustrations by wearing Che t-shirts or flying Confederate flags in their own yards. I have faith that our systems are strong enough to survive a great deal of rhetorical abuse. But the strength of our system is not infinite, and if it not defended with vigor, it must eventually fall. Since the chance that a better system would replace it seems to me remote, I have cast myself as a defender of things as they are. Yes, we can do better in many ways, and should. But not at the cost of overturning the pillars of our system: electoral democracy, the mixed economy, and a firm belief in human rights.