By Ralph Raico
May 1, 1998 (originally published in 1988)
Ralph Raico is a professor of history at the State University College at
Buffalo and a senior fellow of the Institute for Humane Studies at George
This paper was originally published as Cato's Letter #2 in 1988, before the
fall of the USSR, and is here reproduced for May Day, in memory of the
victims of Communism, and in honor of those who fought it for the better
part of a century.
The sharp contrast that Alexis de Tocqueville drew in 1835 between the
United States and Russia -- "the principle of the former is freedom; of the
latter, servitude" -- became even sharper after 1917, when the Russian
Empire was transformed into the Soviet Union.
Like the United States, the Soviet Union is a nation founded on a distinct
ideology. In the case of America, the ideology was fundamentally Lockean
liberalism; its best expressions are the Declaration of Independence and the
Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. The Ninth Amendment, in particular,
breathes the spirit of the world-view of late-eighteenth-century America.
The Founders believed that there exist natural, individual rights that,
taken together, constitute a sort of moral framework. Translated into law,
this framework defines the social space within which men voluntarily
interact; it allows for the spontaneous coordination and ongoing mutual
adjustment of the various plans that the members of society form to guide
and fill their lives.
The Soviet Union was founded on a very different ideology, Marxism, as
understood and interpreted by V. I. Lenin. Marxism, with its roots in
Hegelian philosophy, was a quite conscious revolt against the individual
rights doctrine of the previous century. The leaders of the Bolshevik party
(which changed its name to Communist in 1918) were virtually all
revolutionary intellectuals, in accordance with the strategy set forth by
Lenin in his 1902 work What Is to Be Done? They were keen students of the
corpus of works of Marx and Engels published in their lifetimes or shortly
thereafter and known to the theoreticians of the Second International. The
Bolshevik leaders viewed themselves as the executors of the Marxist program,
as those whom History has called upon to realize the apocalyptic transition
to communist society foretold by the founders of their faith.
The aim they inherited from Marx and Engels was nothing less than the final
realization of human freedom and the end of the "prehistory" of the human
race. Theirs was the Promethean dream of the rehabilitation of Man and his
conquest of his rightful place as master of the world and lord of creation.
Building on the work of Michael Polanyi and Ludwig von Mises, Paul Craig
Roberts has demonstrated -- in books that deserve to be much better known
than they are, since they provide an important key to the history of the
twentieth century -- the meaning of freedom in Marxism. It lies in the
abolition of alienation, i.e., of commodity-production, production for the
market. For Marx and Engels, the market represents not merely the arena of
capitalist exploitation but, more fundamentally, a systematic insult to the
dignity of Man. Through it, the consequences of Man's action escape from his
control and turn on him in malign ways. Thus, the insight that market
processes generate results that were no part of anyone's intention becomes,
for Marxism, the very reason to condemn them. As Marx wrote of the stage of
communist society before the total disappearance of scarcity,
freedom in this field can consist only in socialized man, the associated
producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it
under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind
forces of Nature.
The point is made most clearly by Engels:
With the seizure of the means of production by society, production of
commodities is done away with, and with it the dominion of the product over
the producers. Anarchy of social production is replaced by conscious
organization according to plan. The whole sphere of the conditions of life
which surround men, which ruled men up until now comes under the dominion
and conscious control of men, who become for the first time the real,
conscious lords of nature, because and in that they become master of their
own social organization. The laws of their own social activity, which
confronted them until this point as alien laws of nature, controlling them,
then are applied by men with full understanding, and so mastered by them.
Only from then on will men make their history themselves in full
consciousness; only from then on will the social causes they set in motion
have in the main and in constantly increasing proportion, also the results
intended by them. It is the leap of mankind from the realm of necessity to
the realm of freedom.
Marx and Engels had taken over the idea of the primacy of the economic from
Saint-Simon and his followers, who had learned it from French liberal
writers of the school of Say, Thierry, Dunoyer, and Charles Comte. Thus
Man's freedom would be expressed in the total control exercised by the
associated producers in planning the economy and, with it, all of social
life. No longer would the unintended consequences of Man's actions bring
disaster and despair -- there would be no such consequences. Man would
determine his own fate. Left unexplained was how millions upon millions of
separate individuals could be expected to act with one mind and one will --
could suddenly become "Man" -- especially since it was alleged that the
state, the engine of coercion, would wither away.
The audacity of the Marxists' dream was matched only by the depth of their
Already in Marx and Engels' day -- decades before the establishment of the
Soviet state -- there were some with a shrewd idea of just who it was that
would assume the title role when the time came to perform the heroic
melodrama, Man Creates His Own Destiny. The most celebrated of Marx's early
critics was the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin, for whom Marx was "the
Bismarck of socialism" and who warned that Marxism was a doctrine ideally
fitted to function as the ideology -- in the Marxist sense: the systematic
rationalization and obfuscation -- of the power urges of revolutionary
intellectuals. It would lead, Bakunin warned, to the creation of "a new
class," which would establish "the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant,
and contemptuous of all regimes" and entrench its control over the producing
classes of society. Bakunin's analysis was extended and elaborated by the
Pole Waclaw Machajski.
Despite this analysis -- or perhaps as a confirmation of it -- the Marxist
vision came to inspire generations of intellectuals in Europe and even in
America. In the course of the vast, senseless carnage that was the First
World War, the Tsarist Empire collapsed and the immense Imperial Russian
Army was fragmented into atoms. A tiny group of Marxist intellectuals seized
power. What could be more natural than that, once in power, they should try
to bring into being the vision that was their whole purpose and aim? The
problem was that the audacity of their dream was matched only by the depth
of their economic ignorance.
Any trace of decentralization or division of power, the slightest suggestion
of a countervailing force to the central authority of the 'associated
producers,' ran directly contrary to the vision of the unitary planning of
the whole of social life.
In August 1917 -- three months before he took power -- this is how Lenin, in
State and Revolution, characterized the skills needed to run a national
economy in the "first phase" of communism, the one he and his associates
were about to embark upon:
The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by
capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple
operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of
anybody who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic.
Nikolai Bukharin, one of the foremost "Old Bolsheviks," in 1919 wrote,
together with Evgeny Preobrazhensky, the most famous Bolshevik text. It was
The ABC of Communism, a work that went through 18 Soviet editions and was
translated into 20 languages. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky "were regarded as
the Party's two ablest economists." According to them, communist society is,
in the first place, "an organized society," based on a detailed, precisely
calculated plan, which includes the "assignment" of labor to the various
branches of production. As for distribution, according to these eminent
Bolshevik economists, all products will be delivered to communal warehouses,
and the members of society will draw them out in accordance with their
If something like Stalinism had not occurred, it would have been close to a
Favorable mentions of Bukharin in the Soviet press are now taken to be
exciting signs of the glories of glasnost, and in his speech of November 2,
1987, Mikhail Gorbachev partially rehabilitated him. It should be remembered
that Bukharin is the man who wrote, "We shall proceed to a standardization
of the intellectuals; we shall manufacture them as in a factory" and who
stated, in justification of Leninist tyranny,
Proletarian coercion, in all its forms, from executions to forced labor, is,
paradoxical as it may sound, the method of molding communist humanity out of
the human material of the capitalist period.
The shaping of the "human material" at their disposal into something
higher -- the manufacture of the New Soviet Man, Homo sovieticus -- was
essential to the vision of all the millions of individuals in society acting
together, with one mind and one will, and it was shared by all the Communist
leaders. It was to this end, for instance, that Lilina, Zinoviev's wife,
spoke out for the "nationalization" of children, in order to mold them into
The most articulate and brilliant of the Bolsheviks put it most plainly and
best. At the end of his Literature and Revolution, written in 1924, Leon
Trotsky placed the famous, and justly ridiculed, last lines: Under
communism, he wrote, "The average human type will rise to the heights of an
Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."
This dazzling prophecy was justified in his mind, however, by what he had
written in the few pages preceding. Under communism, Man will
reconstruct society and himself in accord with his own plan. . . . The
imperceptible, ant-like piling up of quarters and streets, brick by brick,
from generation to generation, will give way to the titanic construction of
city-villages, with map and compass in hand. . . . Even purely physiologic
life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the
coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical
transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most
complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training. .
. . [I]t will be possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional
family life. . . . The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours
before God, kings, and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the
laws of heredity and blind sexual selection . . Man will make it his purpose
. . . to create a higher social biological type, or, if you please, a
The Soviet Union has been the worst reeking charnel house of this whole
awful twentieth century.
I suggest that what we have here, in the sheer willfulness of Trotsky and
the other Bolsheviks, in their urge to replace God, nature, and spontaneous
order with total, conscious planning by themselves, is something that
transcends politics in any ordinary sense of the term. It may well be that
to understand what is at issue here, we must ascend to another level, and
that more useful in understanding it than the works of the classical liberal
economists and political theorists is the superb novel of the great
Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength.
Now, the fundamental changes in human nature that the Communist leaders
undertook to make require, in the nature of the case, absolute political
power in a few directing hands. During the French Revolution, Robespierre
and the other Jacobin leaders set out to transform human nature in
accordance with the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This was not the only
cause but it was surely one of the causes of the Reign of Terror. The
Communists soon discovered what the Jacobins had learned: that such an
enterprise requires that Terror be erected into a system of government.
It seems likely that around 14,000,000 persons lost their lives as a result
of these Communist policies -- more than the total of all the dead in all
the armies in the First World War.
The Red Terror began early on. In his celebrated November 1987 speech,
Gorbachev confined the Communist Reign of Terror to the Stalin years and
Many thousands of people inside and outside the party were subjected to
wholesale repressive measures. Such, comrades, is the bitter truth.
But by no means is this the whole of the bitter truth. By the end of 1917,
the repressive organs of the new Soviet state had been organized into the
Cheka, later known by many other names, including OGPU, NKVD, and KGB. The
various mandates under which the Cheka operated may be illustrated by an
order signed by Lenin on February 21, 1918: that men and women of the
bourgeoisie be drafted into labor battalions to dig trenches under the
supervision of Red Guards, with "those resisting to be shot." Others,
including "speculators" and counter-revolutionary agitators, were "to be
shot on the scene of their crime." To a Bolshevik who objected to the
phrasing, Lenin replied, "Surely you do not imagine that we shall be
victorious without applying the most cruel revolutionary terror?" The number
of Cheka executions that amounted to legalized murder in the period from
late 1917 to early 1922 -- including neither the victims of the
Revolutionary Tribunals and the Red Army itself nor the insurgents killed by
the Cheka -- has been estimated by one authority at 140,000. As a reference
point, consider that the number of political executions under the
reactionary and repressive Tsarist regime from 1866 to 1917 was about 44,000
(except that the persons executed were accorded trials), and the comparable
figure for the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror was 18,000 to 20,000.
Clearly, with the first Marxist state something new had come into the world.
The fundamental changes in human nature that the Communist leaders undertook
to make require, in the nature of the case, absolute political power in a
few directing hands.
In the Leninist period -- that is, up to 1924 -- fall also the war against
the peasantry that was part of "war communism" and the famine conditions,
culminating in the famine of 1921, that resulted from the attempt to realize
the Marxist dream. The best estimate of the human cost of those episodes is
around 6,000,000 persons.
But the guilt of Lenin and the Old Bolsheviks -- and of Marx himself -- does
not end here. Gorbachev asserted that "the Stalin personality cult was
certainly not inevitable." "Inevitable" is a large word, but if something
like Stalinism had not occurred, it would have been close to a miracle.
Scorning what Marx and Engels had derided as mere "bourgeois" freedom and
"bourgeois" jurisprudence, Lenin destroyed freedom of the press, abolished
all protections against the police power, and rejected any hint of division
of powers and checks and balances in government. It would have saved the
peoples of Russia an immense amount of suffering if Lenin -- and Marx and
Engels before him -- had not quite so brusquely dismissed the work of men
like Montesquieu and Madison, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville.
These writers had been preoccupied with the problem of how to thwart the
state's ever-present drive toward absolute power. They laid out, often in
painstaking detail, the political arrangements that are required, the social
forces that must be nurtured, in order to avert tyranny. But to Marx and his
Bolshevik followers, this was nothing more than "bourgeois ideology,"
obsolete and of no relevance to the future socialist society. Any trace of
decentralization or division of power, the slightest suggestion of a
countervailing force to the central authority of the "associated producers,"
ran directly contrary to the vision of the unitary planning of the whole of
The toll among the peasantry was even greater under Stalin's
collectivization and the famine of 1933 -- a deliberate one this time, aimed
at terrorizing and crushing the peasants, especially of the Ukraine. We
shall never know the full truth of this demonic crime, but it seems likely
that around 14,000,000 persons lost their lives as a result of these
Communist policies -- more than the total of all the dead in all the armies
in the First World War.
Like the United States, the Soviet Union is a nation founded on a distinct
One is stunned. Who could have conceived that within a few years, compared
with what the Communists were to do in the Ukraine, the appalling butcheries
of World War I --Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele -- would be nothing?
They died in hell.
They called it Passehendaele.
But what word to use, then, for what the Communists made of the Ukraine?
Vladimir Grossman, a Russian novelist who experienced the famine of 1933,
wrote about it in his novel Forever Flowing, published in the West. An
eyewitness to the famine in the Ukraine stated,
Then I came to understand the main thing for the Soviet power is the Plan.
Fulfill the Plan. . . . Fathers and mothers tried to save their children, to
save a little bread, and they were told: You hate our socialist country, you
want to ruin the Plan, you are parasites, kulaks, fiends, reptiles. When
they took the grain, they told the kolkhoz members they would be fed out of
the reserve fund. They lied. They would not give grain to the hungry.
The Communists soon discovered what the Jacobins had learned: that such an
enterprise requires that Terror be erected into a system of government.
The labor camps for "class-enemies" had already been established under
Lenin, at least as early as August 1918. They were vastly enlarged under his
successor. Alexander Solzhenitsyn compared them to an archipelago spread
across the sea of the Soviet Union. The camps grew and grew. Who were sent
there? Tsarists and recalcitrant members of the middle classes, liberals,
Mensheviks, anarchists, priests and laity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,
Baptists and other religious dissidents, "wreckers," suspects of every
description, then, "kulaks" and peasants by the hundreds of thousands.
During the Great Purge of the middle 1930s, the Communist bureaucrats and
intellectuals themselves were victims, and there was a certain sort of
thinker in the West who now began to notice the camps, and the executions,
for the first time. More masses of human beings were shipped in after the
annexations of eastern Poland and the Baltic states; then enemy prisoners of
war, the internal "enemy" nationalities, and the returning Soviet prisoners
of war, who flooded into the camps after 1945 -- In Solzhenitsyn's words,
"vast dense gray shoals like ocean herring."
The most notorious of the camps was Kolyma, in eastern Siberia -- in
actuality, a system of camps four times the size of France. There the death
rate may have been as high as 50 percent per year and the number of deaths
was probably on the order of 3,000,000. It goes on and on. In 1940 there was
Katyn and the murder of the Polish officers; in 1952, the leaders of Yiddish
culture in the Soviet Union were liquidated en masse -- both drops in the
bucket for Stalin. During the Purges there were probably about 7,000,000
arrests, and one out of every ten arrested was executed.
How many died altogether? No one will ever know. What is certain is that the
Soviet Union has been the worst reeking charnel house of this whole awful
twentieth century, worse even than the one the Nazis created (but then they
had less time). The sum total of deaths due to Soviet policy -- in the
Stalin period alone -- deaths from the collectivization and the
terror-famine, the executions and the Gulag, is probably on the order of
Can the Communist leaders really afford to tell the entire truth?
As glasnost proceeds and these landmarks of Soviet history are uncovered and
explored to a greater or lesser degree, it is to be hoped that Gorbachev and
his followers will not fail to point an accusing finger at the West for the
part it played in masking these crimes. I am referring to the shameful
chapter in twentieth-century intellectual history involving the fellow
travelers of Soviet Communism and their apologias for Stalinism. Americans,
especially American college students, have been made familiar with the
wrongs of McCarthyism in our own history. This is as it should be. The
harassment and public humiliation of innocent private persons is iniquitous,
and the U.S. government must always be held to the standards established by
the Bill of Rights. But surely we should also remember, and inform young
Americans of, the accomplices in a far different order of wrongs -- those
progressive intellectuals who "worshiped at the temple of (Soviet) planning"
and lied and evaded the truth to protect the homeland of socialism, while
millions were martyred. Not only George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice
Webb, Harold Laski, and Jean-Paul Sartre, but, for instance, the Moscow
correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, who told his readers,
in August 1933, at the height of the famine:
Any report of famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant
propaganda. The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population
in the last year and particularly in the grain-producing provinces -- the
Ukraine, North Caucasus, the lower Volga region -- has, however, caused
heavy loss of life.
For his "objective" reporting from the Soviet Union, Duranty won a Pulitzer
It is to be hoped that Gorbachev and his followers will not fail to point an
accusing finger at the West for the part it played in masking these crimes.
Or -- to take another fellow traveler virtually at random -- we should keep
in mind the valuable work of Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University.
Prof. Lattimore visited Kolyma in the summer of 1944, as an aide to the vice
president of the United States, Henry Wallace. He wrote a glowing report on
the camp and on its chief warden, Commandant Nikishov, for the National
Geographic. Lattimore compared Kolyma to a combination of the Hudson's Bay
Company and the TVA. The number of the influential American fellow travelers
was, in fact, legion, and I can think of no moral principle that would
justify our forgetting what they did and what they did it in aid of.
In his speech of November 2, Gorbachev declared that Stalin was guilty of
"enormous and unforgivable crimes" and announced that a special commission
of the Central Committee is to prepare a history of the Communist party of
the Soviet Union that will reflect the realities of Stalin's rule. Andrei
Sakharov has called for the full disclosure of "the entire, terrible truth
of Stalin and his era." But can the Communist leaders really afford to tell
the entire truth? At the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev
revealed the tip of the iceberg of Stalinist crimes, and Poland rose up and
there took place the glorious and immortal Hungarian Revolution, when they
did high deeds in Hungary.
To pass all men's believing.
What would it mean to reveal the entire truth? Could the Communist leaders
admit, for instance, that during World War II, "the losses inflicted by the
Soviet state upon its own people rivaled any the Germans could inflict on
the battlefield"? That "the Nazi concentration camps were modified versions
of Soviet originals, whose evolution the German leadership had followed with
That, in short, "the Soviet Union is not only the original killer state, but
the model one"? If they did that, what might the consequences not be this
time? But the fact that the victims of Soviet Communism can never be fully
acknowledged in their homeland is all the more reason that, as a matter of
historical justice, we in the West must endeavor to keep their memory alive.
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