Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Former people

Reviewing a new book by a former communist, John Gray wonders why it is that some liberals continue to envision Marxism-Leninism as a worthy idealism that just somehow went wrong:
Discussing the Declaration of the Rights of Toiling and Exploited People promulgated in the Soviet Union in January 1918, in which sections of the population regarded as “former people” were disenfranchised, Vladimir Tismaneanu writes: “It can hardly be considered a coincidence that the term byvshie liudi (former people), which became commonplace in Bolshevik speak, implied that those to whom it applied were not quite human.” ....
“Communism, like Fascism, undoubtedly founded its alternative, illiberal modernity on the conviction that certain groups could be deservedly murdered. The Communist project, in such countries as the USSR, China, Cuba, Romania, or Albania, was based precisely on the conviction that certain social groups were irretrievably alien and deservedly murdered.”
An ambitious and challenging rereading of twentieth-century history, The Devil in History is most illuminating in showing that parallels between the two totalitarian experiments existed from the beginning. Tismaneanu confesses to being baffled by what he describes as “the still amazing infatuation of important intellectuals with the communist Utopia”. “It is no longer possible to maintain and defend a relatively benign Lenin”, he writes, “whose ideas were viciously distorted by the sociopath Stalin.” Unlike Stalin, Lenin showed no signs of psychopathology. Rather than being an expression of paranoia, methodical violence and pedagogic terror were integral features of Bolshevik doctrine. By their own account, Lenin and his followers acted on the basis of the belief that some human groups had to be destroyed in order to realize the potential of humanity. These facts continue to be ignored by many who consider themselves liberals, and it is worth asking why. ....

Tismaneanu’s account of Communist totalitarianism will be resisted by those who want to believe that it was an essentially humanistic project derailed by events – national backwardness, foreign encirclement and the like. But as he points out, the Soviet state was founded on policies which implied that some human beings were not fully human. Lenin may have held to a version of humanism, but it was one that excluded much of actually existing humankind. It was not simply because they could be expected to be hostile to the new regime that priests, merchants, members of formerly privileged classes and functionaries of the old order were deprived of civil rights. They represented a kind of humanity that had had its day. There is nothing to suggest that the Bolsheviks viewed the fate of former persons as the tragic price of revolution. Such superfluous human beings were no more than the detritus of history. If radical evil consists in denying the protection of morality to sections of humankind, the regime founded by Lenin undoubtedly qualifies. .... [more]
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