Friday, December 11, 2015

Stop confusing communism with authoritarianism

A recent Time article (Meet the World's Remaining Communists) describes an ongoing project by Dutch photographer Jan Banning to capture images of those still holding fast to an ideology that has been largely presumed dead since 1989. For the most part I have no problem with this article, save for one paragraph that is an intellectual rock in my shoe, betraying as it does an essentially Western view of the supposed fall of communism:

Venturing behind certain doors in Portugal, Nepal and Italy, Banning, through his photographs, wonders “how could you still say you are a communist after everything we discovered the movement did in the Soviet Union?” And yet, he finds, that dream persists.

It is hard to tell from this passage whether Banning is being quoted directly, or if the writer (Rachel Lowry) is putting words in his mouth. Either way, however, the "question" posed above reflects the dumbed-down version of events that those of us in the West were encouraged by our government and media to believe, which is that the atrocities that occurred in the Soviet Union were directly caused by the communist ideology in and of itself. According to the de facto Western mindset, communism and authoritarianism are one and the same.

The problem with almost any major ideology is that no matter how idealistic the intent behind those who first articulate it on paper, by the time it is implemented (or shortly thereafter), it becomes twisted into something that serves the interests of those with power and resources at the expense of those without.

This is as true of the communism envisioned by Marx and Engels as it is of the liberal democracy promulgated by the 'Founding Fathers' of the United States of America. The former was meant to be a series of worker-run 'soviets', embodying a classless society with a ground-up democracy. The latter was also a dream of the classless society, albeit by way of a representative democracy that exalts private property rights and capital.

That neither lived up to their respective ideals is not any sign of defectiveness on the part of either school of thought - both are simply examples of how human beings exploit any advantage they can to consolidate and maintain power over others, thus rendering meaningless whatever ideological banner under which this occurs.

When Lowry (or Banning?) refers to "everything we discovered the movement did in the Soviet Union", we can only assume the reference is to the repression and atrocities that occurred under Josef Stalin and his successors. However, it would be intellectually dishonest to say that Stalinism (or, left-wing authoritarianism) is interchangeable with communism. Certainly, an iron-fisted dictatorship was never what Marx had in mind.

It is journalistic false accusation to say a "movement" was responsible for the gruesome excesses of an authoritarian regime. While it was a "movement" that led a successful revolution culminating in Russia's communist regime, it was a corrupt locus of absolute power that carried out atrocities in communism's name though not its spirit.

By the same token, the United States has a history of supporting fascist regimes, which would seem to fly in the face of the ideals that America-boosters would profess to uphold. Would it be accurate to say that the 'movement' of American democracy and freedom is to held responsible for the bloodshed and misery that arose from backing those regimes, or should the blame be placed at the feet of self-serving politicians and their corporate string-pullers?

The communist East and the anti-communist West both had their mythologies, built on nominal adherence to political ideologies that largely served as window dressing for the bald pursuit of power in and of itself. Despite the lullabyes to which we sing to ourselves to sleep, any major ideology put into practice inevitably boils down to a simple commandment: fall in line or risk getting seriously hurt.

The same was true of Russia under Stalin and "communism" as it is of Russia under Putin and "capitalism".