The idealism that kills

Paul Hollander is a Harvard scholar on Eastern Europe and Russia and is himself a refugee from communism, having escaped from Hungary during the Soviet suppression of that country’s freedom movement. He discusses why we today still vilify the Nazis while giving the communists more of a break.

The different moral responses to Nazism and communism in the West can be interpreted as a result of the perception of communist atrocities as byproducts of noble intentions that were hard to realize without resorting to harsh measures. The Nazi outrages, by contrast, are perceived as unmitigated evil lacking in any lofty justification and unsupported by an attractive ideology. There is far more physical evidence and information about the Nazi mass murders, and Nazi methods of extermination were highly premeditated and repugnant, whereas many victims of communist systems died because of lethal living conditions in their places of detention. Most of the victims of communism were not killed by advanced industrial techniques.

Communist systems ranged from tiny Albania to gigantic China; from highly industrialized Eastern European countries to underdeveloped African ones. While divergent in many respects, they had in common a reliance on Marxism-Leninism as their source of legitimacy, the one-party system, control over the economy and media, and the presence of a huge political police force. They also shared an ostensible commitment to creating a morally superior human being — the socialist or communist man.

Political violence under communism had an idealistic origin and a cleansing, purifying objective. Those persecuted and killed were defined as politically and morally corrupt and a danger to a superior social system. The Marxist doctrine of class struggle provided ideological support for mass murder. People were persecuted not for what they did but for belonging to social categories that made them suspect.

In the aftermath of the fall of Soviet communism, many Western intellectuals remain convinced that capitalism is the root of all evil. There has been a long tradition of such animosity among Western intellectuals who gave the benefit of doubt or outright sympathy to political systems that denounced the profit motive and proclaimed their commitment to create a more humane and egalitarian society, and unselfish human beings. The failure of communist systems to improve human nature doesn't mean that all such attempts are doomed, but improvements will be modest and are unlikely to be attained by coercion. . . .

The failure of Soviet communism confirms that humans motivated by lofty ideals are capable of inflicting great suffering with a clear conscience. But communism's collapse also suggests that under certain conditions people can tell the difference between right and wrong. The embrace and rejection of communism correspond to the spectrum of attitudes ranging from deluded and destructive idealism to the realization that human nature precludes utopian social arrangements and that the careful balancing of ends and means is the essential precondition of creating and preserving a decent society.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dan Kempin

    ” . . . humans motivated by lofty ideals are capable of inflicting great suffering with a clear conscience.”

    This is deeply disturbing, but not unexpected. It is the face of a terrible beast that must wreak its havoc until the times are fulfilled.

    Do not fear what you are about to suffer.

    He who has an ear, let him hear.

  • Dan Kempin

    ” . . . humans motivated by lofty ideals are capable of inflicting great suffering with a clear conscience.”

    This is deeply disturbing, but not unexpected. It is the face of a terrible beast that must wreak its havoc until the times are fulfilled.

    Do not fear what you are about to suffer.

    He who has an ear, let him hear.

  • DonS

    I read this disturbing essay in The Guardian yesterday, by a former East German professor lamenting “what was lost” because the wall came down: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/08/1989-berlin-wall

  • DonS

    I read this disturbing essay in The Guardian yesterday, by a former East German professor lamenting “what was lost” because the wall came down: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/08/1989-berlin-wall

  • Bruce Gee

    “Lofty ideals” is lofty language, but what does it mean?

  • Bruce Gee

    “Lofty ideals” is lofty language, but what does it mean?

  • Peter Leavitt

    What it meant in the case of the Communist ideology is that lofty language and ideals coupled with state force cost about fifty-million lives and untold economic and social misery among many peoples.

  • Peter Leavitt

    What it meant in the case of the Communist ideology is that lofty language and ideals coupled with state force cost about fifty-million lives and untold economic and social misery among many peoples.

  • JonSLC

    For those who believe that people are inherently good, a communist or collectivist system should work on paper. “We all want the common good, so let’s work together so everyone benefits.”

    People are not inherently good, however, and so — I guess I’m speaking as a theologian here rather than a political scientist or historian — communism fails. People, at bottom, are self-interested.

    Capitalism has many problems; they hit many hard. But it seems that capitalism makes a foundational assumption about people’s self-interest. Then it pits one person’s self-interest against others’, and so all are kept in check to a degree. Again, when those checks fail in capitalism, people get hurt. Nevertheless, capitalism seems to me to deal more realistically with fallen human nature.

    I wish people were naturally selfless, but they are not. I think government functions best when it sees its role as one of curbing evil rather than fostering good that’s really not there.

  • JonSLC

    For those who believe that people are inherently good, a communist or collectivist system should work on paper. “We all want the common good, so let’s work together so everyone benefits.”

    People are not inherently good, however, and so — I guess I’m speaking as a theologian here rather than a political scientist or historian — communism fails. People, at bottom, are self-interested.

    Capitalism has many problems; they hit many hard. But it seems that capitalism makes a foundational assumption about people’s self-interest. Then it pits one person’s self-interest against others’, and so all are kept in check to a degree. Again, when those checks fail in capitalism, people get hurt. Nevertheless, capitalism seems to me to deal more realistically with fallen human nature.

    I wish people were naturally selfless, but they are not. I think government functions best when it sees its role as one of curbing evil rather than fostering good that’s really not there.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    JonSLC (@5), I don’t disagree as such with what you’ve written, but you fail to note that your statement that “People, at bottom, are self-interested” explains why every system fails, capitalism included.

    Free market evangelists equally make the mistake of assuming that people are inherently good — if only they could be free of government interference! The invisible hand! Everyone wins!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    JonSLC (@5), I don’t disagree as such with what you’ve written, but you fail to note that your statement that “People, at bottom, are self-interested” explains why every system fails, capitalism included.

    Free market evangelists equally make the mistake of assuming that people are inherently good — if only they could be free of government interference! The invisible hand! Everyone wins!

  • JonSLC

    tODD,

    Very good point — thanks. Free markets leave open the door to exploitation in many forms, albeit different ones than communist systems may allow. The bottom line seems to be that sin infects every system, and human beings have the potential to screw everything up, no matter what.

    I guess I wonder this: Who serves better as a check on a greedy, exploitative, capitalist? A government that regulates what he may or may not do? Or another greedy, exploitative capitalist competing with him?

    I would say, “Both,” to some degree. Probably as good as we can get is a balance between an unfettered market and some regulation by a representative government… and to trust that God’s left hand is at work!

  • JonSLC

    tODD,

    Very good point — thanks. Free markets leave open the door to exploitation in many forms, albeit different ones than communist systems may allow. The bottom line seems to be that sin infects every system, and human beings have the potential to screw everything up, no matter what.

    I guess I wonder this: Who serves better as a check on a greedy, exploitative, capitalist? A government that regulates what he may or may not do? Or another greedy, exploitative capitalist competing with him?

    I would say, “Both,” to some degree. Probably as good as we can get is a balance between an unfettered market and some regulation by a representative government… and to trust that God’s left hand is at work!

  • DonS

    Jon and tODD, your points are both well taken. Unfettered free markets inflict harm on certain relatively powerless people because of greed and selfishness. The problem is that government regulators also inflict harm on certain relatively powerless people because regulation is necessarily coercive, and is done by greedy and selfish people who often wield unchecked and uncheckable power. Some regulation by a truly representative government is a good thing. But, we often don’t have that. The bureaucracy is an entrenched force, and is neither representative nor very accountable to the people. Undemocratic agencies, boards, and commissions are often established by the legislature and then left to run amuck within their assigned realm, again without accountability.

    So, while no earth bound system of governance will ever be satisfactory,because man is evil, perhaps a system which leans more toward free market principles ultimately has greater checks and accountability, because power is more dispersed, than a centralized powerful government model. At least, that is my political conclusion.

  • DonS

    Jon and tODD, your points are both well taken. Unfettered free markets inflict harm on certain relatively powerless people because of greed and selfishness. The problem is that government regulators also inflict harm on certain relatively powerless people because regulation is necessarily coercive, and is done by greedy and selfish people who often wield unchecked and uncheckable power. Some regulation by a truly representative government is a good thing. But, we often don’t have that. The bureaucracy is an entrenched force, and is neither representative nor very accountable to the people. Undemocratic agencies, boards, and commissions are often established by the legislature and then left to run amuck within their assigned realm, again without accountability.

    So, while no earth bound system of governance will ever be satisfactory,because man is evil, perhaps a system which leans more toward free market principles ultimately has greater checks and accountability, because power is more dispersed, than a centralized powerful government model. At least, that is my political conclusion.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    JonSLC: What about a system where there is a critical tension between public and private, small business and big business, business and workers etc. This is the principle on which a constitutional monarchy is built as well. Unfortunately, the reality is now not so much collision of business and state, but collusion of business and state. This is the new Fascism. And it’s common on both sides of the political spectrum.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    JonSLC: What about a system where there is a critical tension between public and private, small business and big business, business and workers etc. This is the principle on which a constitutional monarchy is built as well. Unfortunately, the reality is now not so much collision of business and state, but collusion of business and state. This is the new Fascism. And it’s common on both sides of the political spectrum.

  • JonSLC

    Scylding, well put: “Unfortunately, the reality is now not so much collision of business and state, but collusion of business and state.”

    DonS: “because power is more dispersed” I think is key. As Scylding noted, over-centralized power can happen on both ends of the political spectrum. To Veith’s original point, collectivist movements on the right and on the left have ended up looking much the same. And we feel the struggle in the U.S., when a government designed to maintain freedom presses so hard to maintain it that it — according to some, at least — actually restricts it.

  • JonSLC

    Scylding, well put: “Unfortunately, the reality is now not so much collision of business and state, but collusion of business and state.”

    DonS: “because power is more dispersed” I think is key. As Scylding noted, over-centralized power can happen on both ends of the political spectrum. To Veith’s original point, collectivist movements on the right and on the left have ended up looking much the same. And we feel the struggle in the U.S., when a government designed to maintain freedom presses so hard to maintain it that it — according to some, at least — actually restricts it.


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