Sceptics blinded by Marxist idols and ideology

May 18, 2007

Communism's allure saw otherwise intelligent members of the academy jettisoning reason, argues Robert Service

Communism had a worldwide impact on intellectuals after the October Revolution of 1917 - the second phase of the Russian Revolution that began in February that year. Some admired and imbibed it, others spat it out as the devil's juice. But no debate about the future of humanity was complete without taking the measure of Marx, Lenin and the Soviet model of "progress".

Several prominent British academics were among the fellow travellers after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Profound doubts about the market economy were widespread, and when Hitler seized power in Germany, the Communist International was often regarded as the only firm bulwark against the Third Reich. Distinguished scholars Sidney and Beatrice Webb became worshippers of Joseph Stalin, and treated Malcolm Muggeridge, who reported accurately on the Ukrainian famine, as a malicious simpleton. They believed everything they were told by Intourist guides and by advisers in London's Soviet embassy.

This was the nadir of the intellectual vocation in Europe as dozens of leading thinkers abandoned the habits of sceptical inquiry and hailed Stalinist state planning of economics, culture and social life as a panacea.

The West turned against the USSR and its state order in the late 1940s.

Administrations in Britain and America financed research institutes to counteract Marxist-Leninist propaganda. Senator Joe McCarthy organised a witch-hunt of communists and fellow travellers. Even in the more tolerant UK, it was not unknown for party militants to lose their academic posts.

When Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in February 1956, there was a revival of favour for "the Soviet experiment". Sputniks, successful athletes and touring poets applied an attractive rouge to the country's image. The Kremlin, however, could never remove the scars from its reputation after the invasion of Hungary in November 1956 and Czechoslovakia in August 1968. By then, in any case, communism was no longer represented exclusively by the USSR. Mao's People's Liberation Army had seized power in Beijing in October 1949 and Fidel Castro led Cuba from January 1959. Communist critiques of the Soviet Union had seldom had a public stage in previous years; Trotsky, assassinated in 1940, had been known more for his martyrdom than for the content of his writings.

All this changed in the 1960s as authors pondered whether communism was a great idea that had been emasculated by its Soviet executors. Did things go wrong only under Stalin? Or was Lenin responsible for the emergence of a terror-state?

Pro-communist academics were still more active in the 1960s than before the Second World War. As previously, their impulses were generated by disquiet about their own countries. The US intervention in Vietnam seemed to prove that one superpower was irredeemably imperialist. South Africa's capitalism was based on racial apartheid. Most of Latin America was in the grip of military dictatorships. The economic malaise of Europe's ex-colonies in Africa and Asia was attributed to a world financial system tilted against them. To many intellectuals, it was clear that the "free world" was unfree for most of its inhabitants.

Communism was again held to offer a total explanation of the ills of the world. Idol worship was resumed as Maoists denied that the Great Helmsman was guilty of any crimes against humanity. His "little red book" became a bestseller. Other writers were drawn to Cuba, ignoring the police-state foundations of the state established by Castro. Communist philosophers produced works of mind-numbing opaqueness. Not for them the clarity of Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto . In Britain, the young scholars on the New Left Review sought to update Trotskyist doctrines in language of a turgidity that would have appalled Trotsky himself.

The brief explosion of challenges to governments on the streets of French and Italian cities - and in European and US universities - cooled after 1968. Communist parties loyal to Moscow had predicted this, but Trotskyist grouplets continued to campaign for the cause. In the UK, the Militant organisation infiltrated the Labour Party and came to head Liverpool council.

What killed off communism's appeal were events elsewhere in the world. Deng Xiaoping introduced a capitalist economy to China from the late 1970s.

Mikhail Gorbachev eliminated Leninist politics in the USSR at the end of the 1980s and refused to send the Soviet Army into Eastern Europe to defend the communist order.

Many social scientists and historians had once insisted that Soviet-style communism was reformable; now they concluded that it was not. Suddenly the works of Marcuse, Althusser and Bahro held no interest for them. Faith in the eternal validity of the doctrines of either orthodox Marxism-Leninism or Marxist dissent was dissipated. Communist academics traced their steps back to the patient accumulation of knowledge. No longer worshipping at the feet of ill-understood communist masters, they became sceptics again. This is not the end of knowledge, but it is a good beginning.

Robert Service is professor of Russian history at Oxford University. His book, Comrades, Communism: A World History , is published by Macmillan, Pounds 25.

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