After he had read Witness, Whittaker Chambers' great memoir of his experience with communism, Andre Malraux paid the author this compliment: "You are one of those who did not return from hell with empty hands."
The line resonates. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Malraux's words are more provocative than ever. What have we learned, really, from the rise and fall of communism in the 20th century?
The pat answer is that communism does not work, or, to put it less glibly, that socialist economics is no match for the free market. Nowadays, the attempt to plan and run a whole economy from the top down is as discredited as any nostrum can be.
American liberals and European social democrats alike speak warmly of the virtues of competition. Indeed, President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair make the market (though not capitalism, a term they shun) central to "Third Way" politics. They proclaim that in the Information Age, it is possible, nay, essential, somehow to combine social justice with the free market.
There is still this difference: that liberals accede to the market precisely as the dictate of a new age, whereas conservatives revere it as a more or less timeless principle that liberals should have acknowledged all along. And in fact the intellectual proof that socialist central planning would not work was elaborated decades ago long before the Information Age by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
Nonetheless, if all we have learned about communism is that it was terribly inefficient and economically backward, we have not learned much. Refuting Marxist materialism on the level of materialism is fair game. But economics was never the heart of Marxism, nor was it the secret of its amazing appeal.
Marxism began in a critique of religion. As a young man, Karl Marx had learned from Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, and other German philosophers that God did not exist, that "God" was in fact a name men gave to human nature purified, abstracted, and set over them as an alien power.
"God" was an illusion, an idolatrous projection of human power at the expense of human well-being. In Marx's language, "The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that for man the Supreme Being is man, and thus with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected, and contemptible being."
He put it more pungently in his essay "On the Jewish Question": Judaism and Christianity are "nothing more than stages in the development of the human mind snake skins [that] have been cast off by history," and man is "the snake who clothed himself in them."
Man, then, is "the Supreme Being" that is the heart of Marxism. Nothing is above man, neither nature nor God. He must worship nothing.
Marx's originality consisted in his extending this critique of religion to private property and the state. These, too, were alien powers, human creations that had assumed an independent and sovereign authority over their creator. Marx's program was to enlighten men about their self-impoverishment and to show them how to win back the power they had alienated to religion, private property, and the state.
When man had recovered his status as the absolute or Supreme Being, he would live a completely free and well-rounded existence for his own sake, having overcome all dependence on anything above or outside himself. Mankind would be completely socialized; egoism or selfishness would disappear; human desires could be satisfied without conflict and without limit. It would be like living in the Garden of Eden, only without the forbidden fruit.
To achieve this earthly paradise was, for Marx, the single moral goal. It was "the categorical imperative," overriding all other (so-called) moral considerations, demanding revolution whenever the time was ripe. Any crimes committed on the way to the future communist society were excused or, rather, justified by the duty to achieve the first moral society.
Marx warned his bourgeois enemies in 1849: "We have no compassion, and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror."
Friedrich Engels knew his comrade well. "Marx was before all else a revolutionary," Engels said at Marx's funeral. "His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the forms of government [that] it had brought into being. …Fighting was his element."
All the other familiar parts of Marxism dialectical materialism, the historical stages of economic development, class warfare, the "immiseration" of the proletariat concerned the means or the materials necessary for revolutionary consummation. But when a conflict arose between these rather deterministic doctrines and the possibility of jumpstarting the revolution through political action, Marx was tempted by and often succumbed to the latter.
Lenin felt the same impatience and finally concluded, based on his experience in Russia, that workers and peasants never could be trusted to launch a workers' revolution. Instead, the Central Committee of the Communist Party would have to direct the revolution on the workers' behalf and without their consent.
In the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, Marx had observed that the communists "have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement." When push came to shove, the communists were ready to exploit that "advantage" even against the wishes of the workers themselves. Mao later expressed this: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." And "our principle," he noted dryly, "is that the party commands the gun."
An amazing feature of the Communist Party was the blind faith and tenacious camaraderie of its adherents. The communists were the most fanatic partisans of the 20th century. Nothing is more striking than how members of the party would lie and spy obediently on its behalf; how they would follow faithfully every twist and turn in the party line; how so many of them would submit meekly to show trials in which their execution was preordained.
Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Whittaker Chambers' Witness and Cold Friday, Richard Crossman's The God That Failed, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago these are the kind of volumes that reveal the essence of communism. No doctrine in this century, not even fascism, matched its ability to pervert the love of justice and the love of God into a militant pseudo-religion.
Although Marxism survives in many universities and in various kinds of cultural criticism, its glory days as a fighting faith are gone. The Chinese communists manage to hold on but are now in the business of exporting missiles, not revolution. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss communism's resurgent appeal to a world still hungry for justice but doubtful that it can be found in either God or nature. At least if we remember some of the unpleasant truths about communism, we will not emerge from this century empty-handed.