Looking Back in anger
The following essay has been cross-posted from Samizdata to here, by kind permission of the author.
It’s been twenty years since my firm belief in a better way of life was vindicated. 17th November was the beginning of the end of an era shaped by collectivism, brutality and industrialised inhumanity. I have written about my experiences of communism on Samizdata before. Today I’ll use someone else’s words to describe the wasteland communism leaves behind.
In 1992, Peter Saint-Andre has written a disturbing, brilliant and accurate description of what communism does to the soul:
…the hunger that I found most disturbing was not of the body but of the soul. […] The socialist state cared nothing for the life of the individual, and this was driven home in innumerable ways.Yet the overall effect was not merely physical — it was a deeply spiritual degradation. It is difficult to put that degradation into words. To me, the most striking sign of it was what I called “Eastern eyes”. I could see and feel the resignation, the defeat, the despair, in the eyes of people I knew. It was an all-too-rare occurrence to come upon a person with some spark of life in his or her eyes (the only exceptions were the children, who had yet to have the life beaten out of them). If it is true that the eyes are windows onto the soul, then the Czech soul under socialism went through life all but dead.
It is tough for me to come up with something to say 20 years on that is not tinged with bitterness and disappointment and if not for the significant anniversary, I would have left this memory unturned. Despite the amazing change 1989 and its aftermath brought to my life I feel no closure over the past and a sense of proportion in the way the fall of communism has been ‘handled’. Today we should be looking back at the last 20 years counting the many communists who died in prison or are still rotting there… I can only hope that future generations will revisit the past and will have far lower tolerance of collectivism and totalitarianism. It may be a futile hope as today’s teenagers have little knowledge of the world my generation grew up and my parents lived in. And so I am bitter and disappointed that people can say the word “communism” without spitting.
I am also bitter and disappointed because those who opposed communism have not won. It is still with us, in the idiotic juxtapositions of Nazism and communism, or socialism and free-market, used by those who aspire to communism and justify it by positing Nazism as the greater evil. It still raises its ugly head in those who despise free-markets and attempt to put a human mask on socialism by pointing out ‘failures’ of capitalism. Rather hard as socialism, like all totalitarianisms, has no face. It is the ultimate denigration of humanity, destruction of individuality, and subjugation of human beings to the vast merciless machine of control and power.
Communism is still with us in China and North Korea. One befriended by the West, the other frowned upon… but neither is ever challenged because of the oppression of its people, and only when it manages to ‘inconvenience’ the rest of the world. Once it falls, it will be horrifying and beyond belief to examine the monstrosities committed by the communists in the light of day. Again, I can only hope that the world will be shamed and aghast at letting this happen for so long. Until then, we only have testimonials such as this: Undercover in the Secret State
I am grateful to those who remember, struggle to understand and explain communism, and especially to those who have managed to capture something of the nature of the beast. Here are the ones I found. Please feel free to share yours.
The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression – the reference book of the communist evil with a tag line “Revolutions, like trees, must be judged by their fruit”
The Lives Of Others captures the paranoia and danger of an Orwellian world where everyone is monitored and, unusually for such world, shows impact of the individual as making a difference. Here is my review.
Burnt By The Sun (Unaveni slnkom) from a sunny day to Stalin’s terror… One of the most powerful films I have seen for a long time. Possibly ever.
No End (Bez konca) – a complex, subtle and haunting film set in Poland 1981.
Repentance (Pokayanie) – for the more surreal amongst us. The first ‘anti-stalinism’ film I have ever seen and will never forget. I remember sitting through the entire credits at the end, stunned and shaken. For context, this was screened in Czecho-Slovakia, publicly, in a cinema in 1987!
It is impossible, of course, to undo the tyrant’s crimes. But one of the tasks writers have set themselves, in the last 50 years, is at least to preserve the memory of the dead, and so to resist the tyrant’s historical arrogance.
The book’s opening paragraph makes the history come the full circle, back to the suffering of the individual:
The dead cannot speak. Can one retrieve their voices? Death under I.V. Stalin, the ruler of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953, has been written about but the dead themselves remain elusive because their voices have been lost to us. The present book is an attempt to recover the voices of those executed under Stalin.