Paul Hollander on the Fall of Communism

This fall is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events associated with the collapse of communism. Paul Hollander, a sociologist who has written numerous works on communism and Western attitudes towards it, has an op ed in the Washington Post, noting some of the lessons of the communist experience, and the failure of most Westerners to fully appreciate them:

The Berlin Wall that came down 20 years ago this month was an apt symbol of communism. It represented a historically unprecedented effort to prevent people from “voting with their feet” and leaving a society they rejected. The wall was only the most visible segment of a vast system of obstacles and fortifications: the Iron Curtain, which stretched for thousands of miles along the border of the “Socialist Commonwealth….”

While greatly concerned with communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Americans — hostile or sympathetic — actually knew little about communism, and little is said here today about the unraveling of the Soviet empire. The media’s fleeting attention to the momentous events of the late 1980s and early 1990s matched their earlier indifference to communist systems. There is little public awareness of the large-scale atrocities, killings and human rights violations that occurred in communist states, especially compared with awareness of the Holocaust and Nazism (which led to to far fewer deaths). The number of documentaries, feature films or television programs about communist societies is minuscule compared with those on Nazi Germany and/or the Holocaust, and few universities offer courses on the remaining or former communist states….

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….

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.

Hollander expands on his analysis in this longer article.

As he points out, communist atrocities have not received their full due in the West, despite the fact that the victims of communism (including some 100 million dead) far outnumber even those of the Nazis. Part of the reason is that the communists, unlike the Nazis, were perceived as having noble motives. However, this is a poor distinction. After all, Hitler and his supporters also believed they were doing the right thing, every bit as strongly as Lenin or Stalin did.

The second distinction often drawn between the two is that the Nazis killed people because of immutable characteristics such as race and ethnicity, while the communists did not. This argument also fails, for two reasons that I discussed in greater detail in this series of posts. First, Communist regimes often did kill people based on immutable characteristics. For instance, they often murdered people because of their class origins; no one could help being born a “Kulak” or a “bourgeois.” Also, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and several other communist rulers targeted various ethnic minorities for deportation and extermination. Second, it is not clear that the distinction between killing innocent people for immutable characteristics and killing them because of mutable ones carries any moral weight. In my view, the case for distinguishing them falls apart on close inspection (see here and here).

Yet even if one ultimately concludes that the Nazis were somewhat worse than the communists, that still does not justify the massive size of the disparity between the enormous attention paid to the crimes of the former and the relative neglect of the latter.

UPDATE: One of the few Western organizations specifically devoted to promoting public awareness of communist crimes is the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which has a website with lots of helpful information. I will probably mark the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall by making a contribution. Political scientist Rudolph Rummel, a leading academic expert on mass murder, has this website with lots of quantitative data on the extent of communist crimes (as well as those of other dictatorships).