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A Cool Kid Communist Comeback

Tablet is publishing works analyzing the state of the American left as part of an ongoing feature inspired by Paul Berman’s series of essays on the subject. The latest examines what’s behind the current revival of Communist-inspired politics, and where it’s leading.

Cathy Young
December 04, 2018
Jacob Siegel
Boston Free Speech Rally, Aug. 19, 2017Jacob Siegel
Jacob Siegel
Boston Free Speech Rally, Aug. 19, 2017Jacob Siegel

The full Tablet series featuring Paul Berman’s original three-part essay on the state of the contemporary Left, along with responses to Berman from writers across the political spectrum, is collected here.

Commie chic is cool again.

Teen Vogue, which now serves its beauty and lifestyle tips with a heavy dose of progressive politics, celebrated Karl Marx’s 200th birthday in May with a feature lauding the father of Communism as a bold and relevant thinker. “His writings have inspired social movements in Soviet Russia, China, Cuba, Argentina, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and more,” the article noted, coyly omitting any mention of how those “social movements” turned out. More recently and on a more highbrow note, Boston Review gives us an essay exploring Jean-Paul Sartre’s blend of existentialism and Marxism as a “philosophy for our time,” complete with a photo of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in a 1960 tête-à-tête with Che Guevara.

Kirsten Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, offers Communist nostalgia with a feminist twist in her recent book, Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism, which trots out a few East German sex surveys as evidence for its dubious claim. (Yes, the “socialism” in her title refers to the pre-1991 Soviet-bloc variety.) Meanwhile, left-wing Twitter accounts increasingly sport not only the socialist rose emoji but the Communist hammer-and-sickle—and, in real space, Communist symbols and Soviet flags have been a mainstay at “anti-fascist” protest rallies.

In part, the new Communist chic reflects the rise in the popularity of socialism. A Gallup poll earlier this year found that, among Democrats, Democratic-leaning independents—and, perhaps most significant, among all American adults under 30—socialism is now viewed more positively than capitalism. To some extent, this is a consequence of capitalism’s falling stock: more than half of respondents in both groups have reported a positive view of socialism since 2010, while approval of capitalism has dropped by more than 10 percentage points in two years. Most Americans who profess to like socialism associate it with Western European welfare states; still, even Communism is viewed favorably by more than one in four young adults. Meanwhile, Democratic Socialists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are shaking up the Democratic Party. And hip new intellectuals and pundits with a soft spot for Communism are everywhere.

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The Western left’s romance with Communism is as old as Communism itself. In the 1920s and 1930s, a large chorus of intellectuals and political activists hailed the Soviet regime as a beacon of humanitarian ideals even as millions disappeared into the gulag’s meat grinder. (Paul Hollander’s superb 1981 book, Political Pilgrims, probably remains the best account of this depressing subject.)

In the 1950s, after the first official Soviet revelations of Stalin’s crimes and after the Soviet intervention to crush the Hungarian revolution, the infatuation began to wear off—though many, such as Sartre and de Beauvoir, simply shifted their affections to the equally atrocious Cuban and Chinese versions of the Marxist-Leninist experiment. By the 1990s, with the Soviet Union relegated to the proverbial ash heap of history and condemned as an “evil empire” by Russia’s new leaders themselves, and Red China gone quasi-capitalist, the dream of utopia on earth lay in tatters. And yet many leftists were reluctant to disown it completely.

In an essay in The Nation published on the eve of the millennium, writer Daniel Singer deplored The Black Book of Communism, the landmark collection of historical essays attempting to document Communism’s global body count, as an attempt to “pile up corpses” in order to “destroy the very idea of radical change.” Singer, himself the son of a gulag survivor, agreed that the atrocities of Communist regimes had to be reckoned with. Yet, in practice, he was ambivalent about the reckoning:

If you look at Communism as merely the story of crimes, terror, and repression, to borrow the subtitle of the Black Book, you are missing the point. The Soviet Union did not rest on the gulag alone. There was also enthusiasm, construction, the spread of education and social advancement for millions.

What’s more, Singer fretted, such a perspective made it impossible to “comprehend why millions of the best and brightest rallied behind the red flag or…turned a blind eye to the crimes committed in its name.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what Singer calls the “corpse-counting” makes it impossible to excuse the complicity.

When Singer was writing his essay in the twilight days of both the 20th Century and his own life, liberal capitalism was triumphant. Nearly twenty years later, things are considerably more complicated. The 2008 financial crisis has shaken faith in markets. The initial euphoria of the fall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe has turned to disillusionment and, in many cases, authoritarian backsliding accompanied by partial rehabilitation of the Communist period.

In the West, the ascendancy of the anti-“neoliberal” left has also brought back Communist apologetics. Recently, a tweet by the left-wing magazine Jacobin promoting one of its articles sparked some savage mockery in social media: “For all the Soviet Union’s many faults, by traversing its vast architectural landscape, we can get a glimpse of what a built environment for the many, not the few, could look like.” Twitter wits suggested replacing “the Soviet Union” with such alternatives as “the Third Reich,” “the Old South” and “the Galactic Empire.” Undeterred, the Jacobin account recycled the tweet five more times, gathering some sarcastic replies but also a respectable count of “likes.”

The Jacobin case was hardly isolated; arguably, it was an especially pithy expression of a trend that started a few years ago. In 2014, Salon published the article, “Why you’re wrong about Communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism)” by progressive activist and writer Jesse Myerson. Among the “misconceptions” is that “Communism killed 110 million people for resisting dispossession,” which Myerson seeks to debunk by noting that many victims of Stalin’s terror were Communists themselves; apparently, this makes anti-Communists wrong. During the 2016 campaign, The New Republic, once a rock of anti-Communist liberalism, gave freelance writer Malcolm Harris a forum to deride Hillary Clinton as a quaint throwback to the days when anti-Communism held sway over the American mind. (Clinton’s offenses: her praise for NATO during a debate, and a passage in her memoir fondly recalling her father’s pastime of discussing the Communist peril with friends when she was a child.) Harris’s article, titled “Who’s Afraid of Communism?”, extolled Communism’s role in the defeat of Nazism—with no mention of the Nazi-Soviet Pact—and in the struggle against white supremacy in America.

Donald Trump’s election victory dealt a devastating blow to the already weakened liberal consensus. The rise of the populist far right has further energized the far left, which flourishes in such popular outlets as Chapo Trap House, a hit podcast started in early 2016 and now earning over $110,000 a month from nearly 25,000 subscribers on the Patreon platform. Chapo is crass, trolly, outrageous, ferociously anti-capitalist, and distinctly sympathetic to the Communist cause.

The Chapo crew’s recent book, The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts and Reason, summarizes the Cold War with a glib both-sidesism, dismissing the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism as a self-serving fiction. And, in a conversation in July on another left-wing podcast, Pod Damn America, Chapo co-host Matt Christman laughed off Communist regimes’ propensity for atrocities as another liberal myth. According to Christman, not only is capitalism’s real record at least as awful, but the “supposed crimes of Communist countries in the 20th century” are mostly the West’s fault, a product of pressures created by the constant “holy war of capital” against Communist revolutions everywhere from the moment the Soviet Union was born. It was, Christman declared, “a nonstop, five-alarm attack on every front—cultural, military, political, economic especially—to undermine and destroy that nascent Communism.” (This is very bad history—most Western countries were quick to establish diplomatic relations and trade with the Soviet Union, and Soviet industrialization was largely made possible by American capitalists—but bad history is practically a Chapo trademark.)

Others are more willing to acknowledge and condemn Communism’s crimes—as long as Communist regimes get credit for making huge progress in health, education and gender equality (something the capitalist West managed to get done with no gulags, firing squads, or wall-to-wall censorship) and as long as the crimes aren’t decried too loudly. Ghodsee’s book on the joys of commie sex, which asserts that “there was a baby in all that bathwater,” lambastes “conservative cold warriors” for “screaming about Stalin’s famines and purges” to discredit alternatives to capitalism. In an Aeon magazine essay in defense of anti-anti-Communism, Ghodsee and Bowdoin College philosophy professor Scott Sehon take umbrage at various initiatives to commemorate Communism’s atrocities and their victims: Sure, “there were real horrors,” but what’s with “the urgency to insist that the history of 20th-century Communism is one of ‘untold devastation’?” Ghodsee and Sehon detect an agenda: to convince people that “Communism should be rejected as a political ideology” because Communist regimes have a propensity for mass murder, an implication they find deeply unfair.

Both the facts and the logic of anti-anti-Communism are shaky at best. Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism strains mightily to find that baby in the bathwater. Among the facts Ghodsee cites as evidence of genuine Soviet commitment to women’s empowerment is that some obscure lady apparatchik got appointed to curate women’s issues the otherwise all-male Politburo shortly before that body ceased to exist along with the USSR itself. The Ghodsee/Sehon essay cherry-picks a 2009 poll showing Communist nostalgia in the Eastern bloc; the authors make much of the finding that large numbers think life was better for most people in the old days, but never mention that majorities in all but two countries—Hungary and Ukraine—approved of the transition to capitalism, or that former East Germans were overwhelmingly positive about reunification with the West.

As for the claim that capitalism’s crimes rival or exceed those of Communism, it’s a morass of false equivalencies. To be sure, many liberal capitalist societies of the past were tainted by things we now recognize as abhorrent, such as brutal colonial conquest and slavery; but all these things predated capitalism and arguably ended thanks to liberalism. (It is worth noting that many reactionary defenders of slavery in the 19th Century, from British historian Thomas Carlyle to American social theorist George Fitzhugh, regarded capitalism as hostile to slavery; Fitzhugh even lauded “the peculiar institution” as a form of socialism.) Liberal capitalism certainly can and does exist without colonialism and slavery; Communism breeds some variety of gulags everywhere it crops up.

But logic or no logic, facts or no facts, the left’s rekindled love affair with Communism persists. In large part, it’s driven by disaffection with the existing order and the growing sense that radical change is possible. It is also fueled by the increasingly common perception that the modern left is battling “fascists” and “Nazis.” In this scheme of things, the Communists are the good guys who beat the Nazis. One popular far-left meme depicts the 1940 “extreme right” as Nazis declaring “We should gas all Jews,” the “extreme left” as a heroic Red Army soldier with the slogan, “We should gas zero Jews,” and the “‘rational’ center” as splitting it down the middle with “We should gas half of the Jews.”

The invocation of Jews is particularly ironic given that the rise of Communist sympathies on the left has gone hand in hand with the rise of a strident anti-Zionism that has deeply anti-Semitic hues informed, not incidentally, by Soviet ideological critiques of the Jewish state developed in the context of Cold War geopolitical conflicts. (The most obvious example of this tendency is the British Labor Party, where the now-dominant Jeremy Corbyn faction is steeped in both Soviet apologism—Corbyn chief strategist Seumas Milne has been called a Stalinist with only slight exaggeration—and Jew-bashing.)

A full-fledged Communist movement in the United States is extremely unlikely, just like an actual mass fascist movement, though a stronger socialist presence in American politics in the near future is all but a given. But pro-Communist sentiment is also likely to further radicalize the large segments of the progressive community that is focused on identity more than economics. “Cultural Marxism” may be a right-wing cliché, but in a New York Times op-ed last April arguing for the continued relevance of Marx, philosophy professor Jason Barker argued that the Marxian analysis of class exploitation and power structures is now being applied to racial and sexual oppression. With that, it seems that identity-focused progressivism has also acquired a lot of traits that have distinct parallels in Communist regimes.

The social justice movement in America in 2018 has abandoned most of Communism’s materialist basis but embraces some of its hallmarks. Within progressive social justice movements, you find the quasi-totalitarian politicization of everything from personal relationships to the arts; suppression of wrongthink and public shaming of ideological deviants; the idea that compassion for the “class enemy” is treason; and, above all, the belief that it’s possible to build a perfect egalitarian society in which all vestiges of oppression have been eradicated.

In a sense then the legacy of Communism is resurgent along two axes: within the social justice movements that have adopted features of repressive police states and, even more clearly, in the growing popularity of explicitly socialist and Communist politics. Perhaps, we have reached a point where a real, non-whitewashed accounting of utopia’s human toll in the 20th Century is sorely needed.

Cathy Young is a contributor to Reason magazine and an associate editor for Arc Digital. Born in the Soviet Union, she immigrated to the United States in 1980 and is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.