Friday, January 20, 2006

No Thinking Please

The right-wingers who make random denunciations of their ideological enemies as Stalinists or fellow travelers live in an aboriginal dreamtime in which the political obsessions of 1935 are suspended eternally like the grapes and cherries in a jello salad. But not even Stalin would be a Stalinist at this stage of the game, any more than a resurrected Genghis Khan would be more alarming than any other guy on a horse in the suburbs of Ulan Batur. As late as the 50s, there were still a fair number of intellectuals making excuses for the Great Purges—I date back to that period and encountered some of them—but even the radicals of the next generation had given up that game. Indeed, the remaining traditional communists tended to look down on them for that very reason, and the sympathies of susceptible cultural lefties accrued to Black Panthers rather than candidate apparatchiks.

Only pinheaded pedants remember historical dates, I suppose; but it does matter when things actually happened. For example, when Truman and Marshall thwarted the Soviets in Berlin in 1947 or Kennedy went head-to-head against Khrushchev in 1962, they were exercising genuine courage against a veritable threat; but when Reagan made the Evil Empire speech in 1982, he was like a hunter’s kid exalting over an expiring bear as if he were the one who shot the animal. The ideological mojo of communism dissipated long before the regime’s military and economic power; and by Brezhnev’s era, the empire wasn’t even particularly evil as empires go—the aging bureaucrats who ran the show lacked the ruthlessness of their predecessors. The Commissar class had been among the victims of Stalin’s purges. They weren’t interested in reverting to a system of terror; and they were no longer true believers themselves. Their system was indeed authoritarian and repressive, but it was also utterly lacking in dynamism. Critics of the redoubtable Communism of the 30’s wrote tragic novels like Darkness at Noon. The favored genre of great age of Samzdat was satire that made rueful fun of a decaying social system and the moral and intellectual mediocrity that went with it.

I danced with delight as the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe and the various republics regained their independence; but I have since come to wonder whether the Fall of Communism, or more accurately, the way that Communism fell, made things better or worse. Certainly the Russian people have paid an enormous biological cost for the collapse of the old order—the life expectancy and infant mortality statistics are quite dismaying—but it isn’t even clear that the end of the Cold War was good for the West since America without a credible rival may itself turn out to be an evil empire.

No comments: