In an April 1976 essay in COMMENTARY titled “Making the World Safe for Communism,” Norman Podhoretz observed that “the Soviet Union has fewer apologists in the United States than ever before, but this is not because more people have become convinced that it is a wicked and dangerous country; it is because fewer and fewer people any longer consider the Soviet Union to be any better than the United States.” Third World revolutionary regimes still counted fans among liberal intellectuals, but, on the whole, the Communist project was intellectually exhausted by the 1970s.
Would that it were still so today. A recent surge of Communist nostalgia suggests that a Marxist revival of sorts may be afoot in some elite American quarters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Red Century,” the New York Times editorial page’s yearlong series of op-eds commemorating the centenary of the October Revolution.
The overall tone of the series can best be described as elegiac. These are columns written in regret over what became of the righteous cause of world socialist revolution. According to most of the authors invited to contribute to the series, their Communist protagonists were starry-eyed idealists who set out to repair the world and who made tremendous progress. The original vision was noble. But the grimy realities of politics, bureaucracy, and history ended up distorting that vision. Even so, the columns aim to show that, more often than not, Communism was synonymous with progress, non-conformism, and fun.
Thus there was Tariq Ali’s encomium to Lenin that portrayed the Bolshevik leader as a visionary who defied the “dogmatism” that predominated among most left intellectuals to prove that socialism could be built on Russia’s peasant soil. Lenin’s “uprising,” Ali claimed, was swift and “involved minimal violence.” Eliding the Red Terror altogether, Ali laid all the blame for bloodshed on the Western-backed White Russian reaction. If the newborn Soviet state was brutal, Ali contended, it was because the spirit of Tsarism had “infected” an otherwise pure Bolshevism—a development that Lenin deplored in his lifetime, Ali assured readers.
Few of the op-eds that appeared under the “Red Century” banner were as nakedly ahistorical as Ali’s. But many others were equally revolting.
An Indian writer paid tribute to Moscow’s cultural propaganda in his native land: “The Russians came to India and distributed their stories virtually for free. If this was propaganda, no one has bad memories of imbibing it.” Historian John Sidel lamented the collapse of Soviet-hatched pan-Islamic Communism. “One effect of the failure of revolutionary forces to mobilize under the joint banner of Communism and Islam was to deeply divide Muslims,” he wrote, “weakening their capacity first to fight colonialism during the first half of 20th century and then to resist the rise of authoritarianism across the Muslim world.” The assumption behind these claims was that sectarian divisions and absolutism in the Muslim world emerged after the Russian Revolution and then only because Muslims failed to embrace Communism.
There was more. A Yale forestry lecturer celebrated Lenin’s conservation efforts while barely alluding to the Soviet Union’s dreadful environmental legacy. A University of Pennsylvania historian reproached mainstream Western feminism for failing to see how Communist dictatorships liberated women and helped them achieve better orgasms.
Then there was Helen Gao’s contribution, which argued that “for all its flaws, the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big.” Yes, Mao’s revolution killed some 50 million innocents, but at least it taught Chinese women to value themselves as “men’s equal in outlook, value, and achievement.” Gao’s piece was especially appalling to me, because my Chinese-born wife is a survivor of the barbarous one-child policy.
A handful of “Red Century” op-eds were critical of the Communist legacy. Yet readers won’t find among the 35 published so far a detailed treatment of the horrors of the gulag. Nor will they find coverage of the misery that socialist regimes in Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and elsewhere inflict on their citizens to this day. There are no accounts of the persecution of Christians under Communism regimes, past and present. Young readers unfamiliar with history will learn about Star Trek’s supposed debt to Marxist ideology, but they won’t encounter major Cold War heroes such as Vaclav Havel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, John Paul II, and others who inspired Communist citizens to live in truth.
Taking the “Red Century” project as a whole, then, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Times’ editorial-page editors seek to put a fresh and attractive gloss on totalitarianism. Is it the Democratic Party’s shift to the harder left in recent years, under the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, that resulted in this framing? Or are the editors taking advantage of the passage of time to rehabilitate a worldview with which they always sympathized? Are they just trolling readers? Who knows? Regardless of the motive, the effect is to make the world safe for communism once more.