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Can There be an "After Socialism"?

Can There be an "After Socialism"?

10 Mins
September 27, 2003

The goal of socialism was to reap the cultural, scientific, creative, and communal rewards of abolishing private property and free markets, and to end human tyranny. Using the command of the state, Communism sought to create this socialist society. What in fact occurred was the achievement of power by a group of inhumane despots: Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Castro, Mengistu, Ceausescu, Hoxha, and so on, and so on.

We are invited now to discuss what follows these tyrants, and what lessons we have learned from them, and what sort of world might emerge from the loss of belief in Communism. There is one problem, however: the bodies.We are surrounded by slain innocents, and the scale is wholly new. This is not the thousands killed during the Inquisition; it is not the thousands of American lynching. This is not the six million dead from Nazi extermination. The best scholarship yields numbers that the mind must try to comprehend: scores, and scores, and scores, and scores of millions of bodies.

All around us. If we count those who died of starvation during Communists' experiments with human interactions—twenty to forty million in three years in China alone—we may add scores of millions more. Shot; dead by deliberate exposure; starved; and murdered in work camps and prisons meant to extract every last fiber of labor from human beings and then kill them. And all around us, widows and widowers and orphans.

Until we deal with the Communist dead, there is no "after socialism."

No cause, ever, in the history of all mankind, has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than socialism with power. It surpassed, exponentially, all other systems of production in turning out the dead. The bodies are all around us. And here is the problem: No one talks about them. No one honors them. No one does penance for them. No one has committed suicide for having been an apologist for those who did this to them. No one pays for them. No one is hunted down to account for them. It is exactly what Solzhenitsyn foresaw in The Gulag Archipelago: "No, no one would have to answer. No one would be looked into."  Until that happens, there is no "after socialism."

The West accepts an epochal, monstrous, unforgivable double standard. We rehearse the crimes of Nazism almost daily, we teach them to our children as ultimate historical and moral lessons, and we bear witness to every victim. We are, with so few exceptions, almost silent on the crimes of Communism. So the bodies lie among us, unnoticed, everywhere. We insisted upon "de-Nazification," and we excoriate those who tempered it in the name of new or emerging political realities. There never has been and never will be a similar "de-Communization," although the slaughter of innocents was exponentially greater, and although those who signed the orders and ran the camps remain. In the case of Nazism, we hunt down ninety-year-old men because "the bones cry out" for justice. In the case of Communism, we insisted on "no witch hunts"—let the dead bury the living. But the dead can bury no one.

Therefore the dead lie among us, ignored, and anyone with moral eyes sees them, by their absence from our moral consciousness, spilling naked out of the television and movie screens, frozen in pain in our classrooms, and sprawled, unburied, across our politics and our culture. They sit next to us at our conferences. There could not have been an "after Nazism" without the recognition, the accounting, the justice, and the remembrance. Until we deal with the Communist dead, there is no "after socialism."

No cause, ever, in the history of all mankind, has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than socialism with power.

Our artists rightly obsess on the lesser but still immeasurable Holocaust, which lasted several years, and when we watch Night and Fog, Shoah, Schindler's List, and almost countless other films, we weep, we lament, and we rededicate the humane parts of our souls. The greater Communist holocaust, which lasted decade after decade—the great charnel house of human history—educes no such art. Its one tender, modest film, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, based on Solzhenitsyn's novel, is almost never replayed and cannot be found for purchase. The Communist holocaust should have brought forth a flowering of Western art, and witness, and sympathy. It should have called forth an overflowing ocean of tears. Instead, it has called forth a glacier of indifference. Kids who in the 1960s had portraits of Mao and Che on their college walls —the moral equivalent of having hung portraits of Hitler, Goebbels, or Horst Wessel in one's dorm—now teach our children about the moral superiority of their political generation. Every historical textbook lingers on the crimes of Nazism, seeks their root causes, and announces a lesson that should be learned. Everyone knows the number "six million." By contrast, it is always "the mistakes" of Communism or of Stalinism (repeated, by mistake, again, and again, and again). Ask college freshmen how many died under Stalin's regime, and they will answer, even now, "Thousands? Tens of thousands?"

The pathology of Western intellectuals has committed them to an adversarial relationship with free markets and individual rights.

The record is truly plain. Socialism, wherever it actually had the means to plan a society, to pursue efficaciously its vision of the abolition of private property, economic inequality, and the allocation of capital and goods by free markets, culminated in the crushing of individual, economic, religious, associational, and political liberty. Its collectivization of agriculture alone led to untold suffering, scarcity, and contempt for property as the fruit of labor. It was, at its best, the ability, through horror and servitude, to build Gary, Indiana once, without the good stuff, and without the ability even to maintain it.

To be moral beings, we must acknowledge these awful things appropriately and bear witness to the responsibilities of these most murderous times. Until socialism—like Nazism or fascism confronted by the death camps and the slaughter of innocents—is confronted with its lived reality, the greatest atrocities of all recorded human life, we will not live "after socialism."

It will not happen. The pathology of Western intellectuals has committed them to an adversarial relationship with the culture—free markets and individual rights—that has produced the greatest alleviation of suffering; the greatest liberation from want, ignorance, and superstition; and the greatest increase of bounty and opportunity in the history of all human life.

This pathology allows Western intellectuals to step around the Everest of bodies of the victims of Communism without a tear, a scruple, a regret, an act of contrition, or a reevaluation of self, soul, and mind.

The cognitive behavior of Western intellectuals faced with the accomplishments of their own society, on the one hand, and with the socialist ideal and then the socialist reality, on the other, takes one's breath away. In the midst of unparalleled social mobility in the West, they cry "caste." In a society of munificent goods and services, they cry either "poverty" or "consumerism." In a society of ever richer, more varied, more productive, more self-defined, and more satisfying lives, they cry "alienation." In a society that has liberated women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and gays and lesbians to an extent that no one could have dreamed possible just fifty years ago, they cry "oppression." In a society of boundless private charity, they cry "avarice." In a society in which hundreds of millions have been free riders upon the risk, knowledge, and capital of others, they decry the "exploitation" of the free riders. In a society that broke, on behalf of merit, the seemingly eternal chains of station by birth, they cry "injustice." In the names of fantasy worlds and mystical perfections, they have closed themselves to the Western, liberal miracle of individual rights, individual responsibility, merit, and human satisfaction. Like Marx, they put words like "liberty" in quotation marks when these refer to the West.

Ironically, of course, the main traditions of socialism and Communism both claimed Marxist credentials, and the Marxists surely had one argument right: we should judge human systems, in the final analysis, not as theories and ideal abstractions, but as actual history and practice. In ineffable bad faith, they applied that measure to everything except what allegedly mattered the most to them. From one end of the earth to the other, Marxist intellectuals, propagandists, professors, and apologists never contrasted the existing "socialist world" with the more or less liberal societies of Western Europe and North America. They contrasted, instead, a fictional perfect society that never was to an existing imperfect society that had accomplished actual wonders. Marxists were fond of denouncing such antirealism as "philosophical idealism" when they condemned it in others. It was they, however, who feigned an ideal world of their own spinning—it was they, that is, who were always the most antirealist of all. It is fitting, now that historical evidence has taken everything away from Marxism, that its heirs—the anti-Western postmodernists of the cultural Left—should embrace that antirealism explicitly, as a chosen cast of mind.


The list is long: An anti-Communist epiphany. A festival of celebration. A flowering of comparative scholarship about them and us. A full accounting of the Communist reality—political, economic, moral, ecological, social, cultural, and so on. (What wouldn't one want to know?) A rededication to the principles that underlay—from our side—the differences. A set of profound, anguished, and soul-searching mea culpas from all of those who, without malice, had been tragically wrong. An acute sensitivity to the nature and policies of persisting Communist regimes. A revision of curriculum. A recognition of the ineffable value of a truly limited government.

Indeed, it is precisely to avoid the re-vivification of classical liberal principles that our teachers, professors, information media, and filmmakers ignore the comparative inquiry that the time so urgently demands. Indeed, it is precisely because of the lessons that would be taught by knowledge and truth that no revision of the curriculum occurs. For at least a generation, intellectual contempt for liberal society—as a civilization, a set of institutions, and a constellation of ideals—has been at the core of the humanities and soft social sciences. This has accelerated, not changed, despite the fact that now there is no intellectual excuse for ignoring certain verities.

We know that voluntary exchange among individuals held morally responsible under the rule of law creates both prosperity and an unparalleled diversity of human choices. Such a model also has been a precondition of individuation and freedom. By contrast, regimes of central planning create poverty and occasion ineluctable developments toward totalitarianism and the worst abuses of power. Dynamic free-market societies, grounded in rights-based individualism, have altered the entire human conception of liberty and of dignity for formerly marginalized groups. The entire "socialist experiment," by contrast, ended in stasis; ethnic hatreds; the absence of even the minimal preconditions of economic, social, and political renewal; and categorical contempt for both individuation and minority rights. Our children do not know this true comparison.

As for the mea culpas, we await them in vain from those who claim not to have known or who still choose not to learn. Let Western intellectuals repeat the phrase of "Requiem," a work written during the Stalinist terror by Anna Akhmatova, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century: "I will remember them always and everywhere, I will never forget them no matter what comes." The bodies demand an accounting, an apology, and repentance. Without such things, there is no "after socialism."


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 Alan Charles Kors (B.A., Princeton; M.A. and Ph.D., Harvard) specializes in European intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with a special teaching interest in the deep intellectual transformation of European thought, and a special research interest in the relationships between orthodox and heterodox thought in France after 1650. He has published several books and many articles on early-modern French intellectual history, and was editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (4 volumes, Oxford University Press, 2002). He regularly teaches, among other courses, History 415 (seventeenth-century European intellectual history); History 416 (eighteenth-century European intellectual history); and various seminars on the French Enlightenment, the history of classical liberalism, and the phenomenon of political disillusionment. He served for six years, after confirmation by the U.S. Senate, on the National Council for the Humanities, and he has received fellowships from the American Council for Learned Societies, the Smith-Richardson Foundation, and the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University . In 2003-2004, he was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, lecturing around the country on early-modern intellectual history and on academic freedom. He has won the Lindback Award and the Ira Abrams Memorial Award for distinguished college teaching and several national awards for the defense of academic freedom. In 2005, at the White House, he received the National Humanities Medal, for, according to the citation, "his study of European intellectual thought and his dedication to the study of the humanities. A widely respected teacher, he is the champion of academic freedom." He has taught seminars at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes of the University of Paris and at the University of Leiden , and he gave the TB Davie Lecture on Academic Freedom at the University of Cape Town . He has served on the Board of Governors of The Historical Society and on the Executive Committee of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. In 2008, he was awarded the Bradley Prize.

Alan Charles Kors
About the author:
Alan Charles Kors
Ideas and Ideologies