Every day, my son, who is in seventh grade, sees a quotation from Angela Davis painted on his school’s wall: “Radical simply means grasping things at the root.” (The line actually comes from Karl Marx.) Four years ago, during Black History Month, a poster of Davis beamed down from the wall of his public elementary school in Brooklyn.
I eagerly praise my son’s charter school to other parents. It’s full of dedicated teachers who urge their students to debate politics and history with an open mind. So I wrote to the administration, proposing that they should balance the school’s homage to Davis with a quotation from Andrei Sakharov or Natan Sharansky, who fought to free the millions of Soviet bloc citizens that Davis wanted to keep locked up. After all, I reasoned, some of the school’s families are themselves refugees from communist tyrannies. My suggestion was met with silence.
Davis, who is now euphemistically celebrated as an “activist,” was in fact a loyal apparatchik who served working-class betrayers, some of whom were murderous bureaucrats, and others outright maniacs who defy any normative political description. Among the objects of her adoration were dullards like the East German leader Erich Honecker and the stupefied (and stupefying) Soviet Communist Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev, as well as the Reverend Jim Jones. Before the grotesque mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, Davis broadcast a worshipful speech about Jones to the imprisoned Black women who were murdered by his cult.
There’s hardly a more famous American communist than Davis, who twice ran for vice president on the CP ticket and stayed true to the party until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For decades, she tirelessly defended the brutalities of the elderly white men who ran the Eastern bloc. Now entering old age herself, Davis has escaped her rightful place doing penance at a memorial to victims of Stalinist tyranny to become a beacon for American millennials who make Soviet-style Black History Month posters. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has named Davis her “idol.” Omar, like rest of her Squad, is cut from Davis’ pattern: Spurning the legions of African American women who stood up for freedom, she instead celebrates a dedicated lifelong bootlicker of communist-bloc tyrants. What redeems Davis, in the eyes of Omar and her fellow progressives, is apparently the fact that she was put on trial for supplying guns to the Black Panthers who murdered hostages during a 1970 shootout.
My son’s school is not the only one with an enthusiasm for Davis. In 2021, City Journal reported on an elementary school in Philadelphia that led fifth graders in a simulated Black Power rally in which they shouted “Free Angela!,” a reference to Davis’ incarceration on murder and conspiracy charges, and adorned the walls of the school with murals of Davis and Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Last year, a high school in Rockland County, New York, invited Davis to speak on campus (the speech was canceled due to parental outrage). And the website of the National Women’s History Museum offers a lesson plan—Common Core compliant!—on Davis’ thought, which promises to help students “better make sense of the struggles of women and historically marginalized communities.”
Praise for communists like Davis is a sign of the times. After all, the argument goes, they fought for the oppressed and against the evils of capitalism. A colleague who teaches Russian history tells me that in each class a handful of his students announce that they are communists. The students come equipped with handy rationalizations to explain away monstrous Soviet crimes. They argue, for instance, that Stalin was needed to defeat Hitler; if there had been no Stalin, many more Jews would have died in the Holocaust, so the numbers of Stalin’s dead are outweighed by the people Hitler would have killed.
It’s not just the left that makes excuses for the Soviet regime’s crimes. President Trump claimed that Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979 “because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.” Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB man, models himself after the Soviet rulers in his paranoid wish to silence dissent, his reliance on political assassination, and his use of military force to establish regional dominance, so it’s no surprise that he sees the communist era as a pinnacle of Russian glory. The official Chinese line on Mao is that he was a great leader who made some errors. No Chinese citizen will dare to discuss Mao’s more striking errors, like the 20 million-plus killed by famine during the Great Leap Forward.
The state of Virginia also officially discourages teaching about the criminal behavior of communist regimes. In February the Virginia Senate’s Democrats killed a Republican-sponsored bill that would have required public schools to teach students about the victims of communism. Public school teachers in Virginia are already required to cover slavery and the Holocaust. So why not communism? Because, a representative of the Virginia teachers union explained, “There is a strong association between communism and Asians,” and so studying communism could lead to anti-Asian hate.
Idiots will attack anyone for any reason—a fact to live with. But the Virginia teachers union explanation is plainly bunk. It seems exceedingly unlikely that high school students, after learning about the many millions of Chinese peasants sacrificed at Mao’s whim, would pin the blame for the dictator’s atrocities on the Chinese American kid sitting next to them in class—perhaps a descendent of one of Mao’s victims.
The reality of course is that the Virginia teachers union is loath to desecrate the memories of their own communist poster boy and poster girl heroes. The real reason for failing to include communism in a history curriculum, one suspects, is that it reflects so poorly on the American left, which has so often made common cause with tyrants so long as they were anti-American, while blaming the right for all forms of “oppression.” If “right-wingers” are all racists and fascists, then it follows that communists were the good guys—even when they were committing mass murder.
We need an antidote to such binary madness, to the blatant manufacturing of alibis for some of the 20th century’s biggest psychotics and political killers and presenting this gross propaganda to children as historical fact. A first step in properly educating our children would be to help students grasp what communism did to the psyches of both its victims and beneficiaries, and how it achieved its murderous ends. Understanding communism as a belief system lets us see why it appeals so much to the progressive left—and what today’s authoritarian left has in common with its murderous ancestors.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that guilt was contagious under Soviet communism:
Arrests rolled through the streets and apartment houses like an epidemic. Just as people transmit an epidemic infection from one to another without knowing it, by such innocent means as a handshake, a breath, handing someone something, so they passed on the infection of inevitable arrest by a handshake, by a breath, by a chance meeting on the street. For if you are destined to confess tomorrow that you organized an underground group to poison the city’s water supply, and if today I shake hands with you on the street, that means I, too, am doomed.
Shaking a hand, making a joke, owning a book, knowing the wrong person, could all get ordinary Soviet citizens 10 years of impossibly hard labor in the savage wastes of Siberia during Stalin’s heyday. Your wife or husband would disown you. Your children would be sent to an orphanage. Karlo Stajner, a once-devoted Austrian communist who was caught up in Stalin’s terror after moving to Russia, reported the desperate cries of the wives of political prisoners, young mothers whose babies were ripped away from them after their first birthdays and offered up for adoption to the party faithful.
Even under Brezhnev, who presided over what the fellow-traveling journalist Alexander Cockburn called a “golden age” for the Soviet working class, you could—and probably would—be imprisoned or sent to a psychiatric hospital for merely asserting the right to own a forbidden book, let alone to emigrate.
Today’s progressives, like Soviet-era communists, share the belief that guilt is contagious. If you signed the Harper’s letter, you’re just as despicable as your co-signer J.K. Rowling, and the ardent young people in the newsroom will persecute you via Slack until you toe the line. If you’re lucky, you may be rehabilitated, perhaps after signing an elaborate pre-written confession. Otherwise, you will be forced to retire. Granted, you won’t be made to stand in the corner of a cell for days on end without sleep. But your family might be torn apart, and your job taken away, which is enough cause for today’s little apparatchiks to gleefully celebrate—at least until the spy agencies and big corporations decide to allow them more power.
Communists and contemporary progressives share a taste for exercising power by snitching, destroying the lives of dissenters and nonconformists, and by exorcising inconvenient facts by destroying the language that is used to describe them. Hormones and mastectomies for kids become the “gender affirming care” officially endorsed by our government (even as these methods are being rejected by Europe, which actually cares about children’s lives). Putting biological males into women’s prisons is upholding “women’s rights,” even if it leads to rapes committed by these “women.” Discrimination against Asian students becomes the pursuit of “equity.” Judging people by group rather than individual identity is “justice.” “Black lives matter,” but not the lives of Black victims of violent crime—because progressive prosecutors no longer consider illegal gun possession a chargeable offense.
Here is Solzhenitsyn again:
There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies ... In the most scientific of texts it is required that someone’s false authority or false priority be upheld somewhere, and that someone be cursed for telling the truth ... And what can be said about those shrill meetings or trashy lunch-break gatherings where you are compelled to vote against your own opinion, to pretend to be glad over what distresses you?
One of his fellow prisoners, Solzhenitsyn recalls, two weeks before his arrest gave a lecture titled “Stalin’s Constitution—the Most Democratic in the World.”
America is currently devoted to stamping out actual thinking, the kind that forces you, if you’re a journalist or academic, to confront your own biases and wonder whether you’re right or wrong. Everyone must mouth the same catchphrases, or listen to them uncomplainingly, so that a false solidarity can make do when a true one is unavailable. We are propelled by cowardice, convenience, and low ambition, attributes more fitting to an authoritarian nation than a free and democratic one. Among our young, we are raising a generation of casual sadists and snitches whose overriding generational urge is absolute conformity.
The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, whose memoir To Build a Castle is one of the great books of the 20th century, takes aim at the age-old excuse given by timeservers under authoritarian rule. Their actions, they claim, were governed by fear. They were forced to be loyal servants of the regime.
I didn’t believe the ones who said they had never known: how could you fail to notice the deaths of millions of people, the deaths of your neighbors and friends? Nor did I believe the ones who said they were afraid—their fear had brought them too many promotions ... You don’t get Stalin prizes and country houses if you’re afraid.
Today’s media, academy, government, and top corporations require one to go along with received notions about society and politics—ideas that originate with an American regime that unites large corporations, the academy, the leading parts of the Democratic Party, and America’s spy services, into a soft version of the kind of communist totalitarianism that all true creative artists and people who cared about the fate of working people in the 20th century learned to despise. When he was a young man Bukovsky decided that he could never live with himself if he were to find himself at middle age “making speeches from platforms and signing arrest warrants.” In the early ’60s he and a handful of friends started gathering to read poems together in Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square. These few dozen people would end up winning against a mighty empire with all its vast machinery of repression. The leaders, like Bukovsky, got sent to jail over and over. Sometimes they were in cells with posters of Angela Davis, an official Soviet hero.
Bukovsky’s own unique stroke of genius, inspired by Alexander Yesenin-Volpin’s idea that the protesters were merely standing up for their legal rights, was to flood the Soviet bureaucracy with complaints. Prisoners wrote between 10 and 30 letters each day, addressing them to officials and notable personalities, “complaining one rung higher each time about the reply from the person immediately below.” They wrote “to astronauts, writers, artists, actors, ballerinas; to all the secretaries of the Central Committee; all generals, admirals; productivity champions; shepherds, deer breeders, milkmaids; sportsmen ...”
Each complaint had to be answered—such was the absurdity of Soviet officialdom—and each answer provided the basis for another complaint. Every complaint required a dossier of its own. The ministerial offices couldn’t keep up with the workload; officials broke deadlines and lost their bonuses. The system caved in, and Bukovsky and his friends were released.
A society cannot forever agree to abide by concepts that fail basic tests of reason, and which no one really believes in aside from cadres of snitches and sadistic loyalists. When people are willing to voice their doubts, instead of keeping them to themselves, the system caves in.
Communism is an inconvenient fact for progressives, because it shows what the authoritarian impulse to redesign society by force from above—as shared by yesterday’s communists and today’s communist-worshipping progressives—can lead to. As Bukovsky writes, “People attain absolute equality only in the graveyard, and if you want to turn your country into a gigantic graveyard, go ahead, join the socialists.”
Capitalism may often be ruthless, barbaric, and unfair. But our children should also be taught that it is preferable to a graveyard.