Workers of the World . . . Forgiveness! : Communism: How did visions of a “new dawn” drive people to commit atrocities on an unparalleled scale?

William Pfaff is a columnist for The Times based in Paris

What an affair this was, that now gutters out in confusion and recriminations in Moscow! What a cost was paid! A graffiti on Lenin’s tomb last Monday added to the inscription “Workers of the world . . . “ the scrawled conclusion: “Forgiveness!”

It began in the ideas of an intellectually ambitious journalist who had greatly been influenced by Hegel’s belief that a “world-soul” exists, developing by way of a dialectical logic. His political translation of such ideas were articulated as a program by “professional revolutionaries,” which is to say other journalists (Lenin, Trotsky; journalism then was the way revolutionaries made a living; today it is by teaching in universities). The result in 1918, and after, was a catastrophic transformation of the course of 20th-Century history for the worse.

The peculiar power of Marxism-Leninism lay in its combining scientific claims with an apocalyptically redemptive forecast of historical progress. It was a secular religion, offering a program of action to bring about paradise--the withering-away of the state, fraternal cooperation and collaboration to become the norm of human relations, all conflict resolved--a “radiant future,” a “new dawn.”


The vulnerability of a large part of the secularized and avowedly atheistic 20th-Century intelligentsia to this ostensibly scientific, yet transparently naive, simulacrum of messianic religion is worth more attention than it has been given. The the worldwide communist movement--underground activists in Britain and the United States, spying against their own governments; Comintern militants preparing the revolution in Germany and France; poets fighting Franco in Spain; intellectuals organizing the powerless peasantry in China and Vietnam; artists writing “proletarian” novels and painting “progressive” paintings--these were the Jesuits of the 20th Century. But they, unlike Jesuits, were prepared to attribute omniscience and infallibility to their fellow men, Lenin and Stalin and the Soviet Politburo, rather than to God. That stamps them as of a fantastic, guilt-laden credulousness.

How are we to explain this? By the simple need to believe? By the impulse to sacrifice oneself? The need for a doctrine to make life intelligible? World War I provides a part of the explanation, of course. That catastrophe had seemed to demonstrate the utter bankruptcy of the political system that had prevailed in Europe before 1914 and produced such waste. The Depression after 1929 seemed evidence of an equivalent failure of capitalism.

Yet even then one must ask how these people could have believed that they were justified in committing the crimes they committed. Here lies the truly frightening aspect of the affair: the capacity communism evoked in otherwise decent and idealistic people to put aside the ordinary, common-sense dictates of human morality, that one should not torture others, or kill the innocent, or arbitrarily imprison one’s fellows, and to commit atrocities which they knew to be atrocities but were able to rationalize as a higher good--atrocities that in their cumulative evil dwarf anything that ever happened before.

Marxism over the past 75 years has produced more suffering (and more lies, and moral corruption) than Nazism and fascism could possibly have produced. More people were arbitrarily murdered in communism’s purges and the deliberately instigated famines of the agricultural collectivizations than in the Nazi camps. The ideological massacres of China’s Cultural Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge have no parallel in modern history. More were sent senselessly to camps and prisons, more ruined in their consciences and hearts, by Marxism than by any other political force humanity has yet experienced.

How lucky it would be if the people who launched this affair, conducted it, became its agents and acolytes, blindly accepted its claims and lied about its failures, all were monstrous people from whom we might complacently separate ourselves, thanking God that we are not like them. How stupid even to think it!

One is compelled by all of this to the bleakest judgment on man and politics. Worse is that at the core of it was some kind of aspiration to good. One is spared despair only by the fact that in the end communism has not had to be defeated in war, but is destroying itself. In the end it is the children of the Bolsheviks, the Communists brought up to believe, who are bringing it to an end--and who prove capable of begging from those workers of the world who were to lose their chains and instead were given them, “Forgiveness!”