Not long ago, I mentioned the Victims of Communism Memorial to an acquaintance. It’s a bronze model of the statue raised by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square shortly before the Peoples Liberation Army massacred thousands of peaceful demonstrators in 1989. Located on a small patch of land near Union Station in Washington, countless people walk by it every day, perhaps without even recognizing the memorial or understanding why it is there.
“Communism wasn’t responsible for any deaths,” my interlocutor said. “Crappy leaders were.”
How many times have you heard some formulation of this viewpoint? “Communism is an excellent idea in theory, it just hasn’t worked in practice.” I wish that was the sort of sentiment I only remembered from college dorm room bull sessions. (“OK. How many more millions of people have to die before we get it right?” I always asked, incredulously).
Unfortunately, the notion that Marxist-Leninist ideology is not responsible for the estimated 100 million deaths perpetrated by communist regimes has long been de rigeur among a broad segment of the intellectual elite. And it’s a worldview that, as my friend’s remark and countless other examples attest, is earning followers among a growing number of the Millennial Generation. The Marxist recrudescence is hard to quantify, but it can be seen in populist reactions to the worldwide financial crisis, the rise of far left political parties around the globe, and the increasing popularity of once-obscure figures like Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian Marxist cultural critic. Last year, The New York Times heralded the arrival of the appropriately-named Jacobin, “a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses.” In January, Rolling Stone — blissfully unaware of its own role in the consumer economy—published a widely discussed piece calling upon the government to secure jobs for everyone, abolish all private property, and “take back the land.” The only thing missing from this bill of particulars was elimination of the bourgeoisie.
The growing worry over income inequality in America is not a sign of a generation yearning for communism, but it does exist on a spectrum that in the extreme can lead to obliviousness about its evils. “The key to understanding Marxism’s renaissance in the west,” a 2012 article in The Guardian noted, is that, “for younger people, it is untainted by association with Stalinist gulags.” This retrospective amnesia alternately reveals a generational ignorance about the ideology and nature of communism as well as evidence of the need to educate the public about its horrors.
That’s the goal of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which hopes to break ground for the construction of a “world-class” museum on the National Mall in 2017, the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The museum would include witness testimony, artifacts, and interactive exhibits registering the toll communism has wrought in some 40 countries throughout history. Such an institution would join the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in teaching future generations about man’s capacity for inhumanity.
“It is perhaps one of the biggest lies that exist in our culture today that the deadliest ideology in history is somehow not responsible for the regimes that it brought to life and the deaths that it caused,” says Marion Smith, executive director of the foundation. “Ideas have consequences and there has never been a communist regime that did not end up killing its own people as a goal.”
Smith is right. From Stalin’s gulags to the Cambodian Killing Fields to Mao’s famines, there is not a single communist government in history that was not both tyrannical and left horrifying death and destruction in its wake. According to the Black Book of Communism, regimes inspired by Marxist-Leninism are responsible for some 100 million deaths (and counting), making communism the 20th century’s most fatal ideology.
Yet the myth still persists that there is nothing inherently evil in an ideology that calls for the theft of private property, forcible equalization of citizens (who, as Smith says, are treated as mere “collateral in pursuit of the ideological mission”), a one-party state, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. This double standard in the way we treat communism is noticeable in the legions of university professors who proudly label themselves Marxists, in contrast to the non-existent number who embrace the label of “fascist.” You also see it in the morons who don Che Guevara T-shirts, either unaware or unconcerned that the man was a mass-murdering sociopath.
“It would be indefensible to say … that fascism as an idea has nothing to do with the sorts of regimes that fascism brought to life,” Smith remarks. “But it is the accepted opinion that Marxism is not responsible for the Soviet Union or Mao’s China.”
“It is perhaps one of the biggest lies that exist in our culture today that the deadliest ideology in history is somehow not responsible for the regimes that it brought to life and the deaths that it caused.”
Americans, considering themselves victorious in the Cold War, tend to view communism as a thing of the past, a musty relic of the 20th century that humanity discarded on the ash heap of history along with 8-tracks and asbestos. But while communism may not present the threat to global peace and stability it did when the Soviet Union was still alive, arming proxies of its revolutionary doctrine from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, communism continues to immiserate some 2 billion people around the world. The Communist Party still rules in China, the world’s largest country. Its quasi-market economy does not obviate the role that Marxist ideology, utterly disrespectful of individual rights, plays in the administration of Chinese society. Ninety miles from American shores, the Castro family rules over the island prison of Cuba guided by communist principles. Communist North Korea remains a vast prison camp.
“I think it’s in some ways shameful that we haven’t done more to recognize America’s very important role in winning the Cold War,” says Arch Puddington, the vice president of research at Freedom House who has written a history of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a biography of Lane Kirkland, the anti-communist leader of the AFL-CIO.
For decades, anti-communism was a bipartisan American creed; an ethical glue that joined figures ideologically diverse as Kirkland and Republican revolutionary Ronald Reagan, who, despite their differences, recognized that communism crushed the rights of workers and united together in support of the Polish trade union Solidarity. Indeed, in the early decades of the twilight struggle with the Soviet Union, it was Democrats who were the more hawkish Cold Warriors. Harry Truman recognized the civilizational dangers posed by communism, presided over the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, and articulated an eponymous doctrine that saw the United States supply arms to freedom fighters resisting communist subversion. John F. Kennedy ran to the right of Richard Nixon on foreign policy.
But perusal of the foundation’s board and advisory councils reveals that the energy behind the campaign for a Victims of Communism Museum comes almost exclusively from conservative individuals and foundations. Lee Edwards, the board chairman, has long served as the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation, where Smith himself used to work. Edwards is joined on the board by Heritage founder Ed Feulner, anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, conservative publishing magnate Alfred S. Regnery, former Republican congressman Donald Ritter, former Reagan administration Transportation Secretary James Burnley, former George W. Bush administration State Department official Paula Dobriansky, former Republican Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole (whose running mate Jack Kemp also sat on the board until his death), conservative Catholic theologian George Weigel, and a collection of lesser-known GOP activists and fundraisers.
Democrats were fully on board in the beginning. The bill creating the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which is legally entrusted to care for the memorial, was passed unanimously by Congress and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Tom Lantos, the late Democratic congressman and human rights activist, was a champion of both the memorial and museum. The foundation annually dispenses an award, the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom, whose name symbolizes the nonpartisan nature of anti-communist activism, which has been awarded to figures ranging from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. But today, by my count, the only identifiable liberal or Democrat on the board or advisory council is former Democratic senator from Arizona Dennis DeConcini.
Meanwhile, a list of donating philanthropies provided to me by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation included several large, prominent conservative charities: the Charles Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation and the Earhart Foundation have all contributed money to the building effort. Liberal institutions like the Ford, Rockefeller and Soros foundations—the latter of which has done exemplary work in former communist societies—have apparently donated nothing. (The Victims of Communism Foundation has insisted on not accepting U.S. government funding.)
It’s unclear whether the absence of identifiable liberals and Democrats in the effort to construct a museum documenting the crimes of communism is due to a conscious lack of effort on the part of the foundation, or unwillingness from liberals themselves to associate with what many today consider an exclusively right-wing cause. “We understand the importance of anti-communism being an American theme,” Smith told me. “It cannot be a Republican or Democratic issue. I am committed to strengthening the across-the-board bipartisan support for our initiative.” Lee Edwards, the board’s chairman, declined to comment.
While the Democratic Party was resolutely anti-communist in the early decades of the Cold War, American intervention in Vietnam shattered that consensus. The concomitant rise of the New Left, which championed an intellectual style of anti-anti-communism, saw the old liberal anti-communism lose its confidence as well as its influence over the Democratic Party. George McGovern won the 1972 Democratic presidential primary on a campaign of “Come Home, America.” Jimmy Carter scolded Americans for their “inordinate fear of communism.” By the 1980s, most American liberal pundits saw Ronald Reagan – derided as “Ronnie Ray-gun” – as posing a greater threat to world peace than Moscow.
In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why today’s Democrats might feel unease about their Cold War legacy. How many of them look back fondly upon Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the hawkish Democrat whom McGovern defeated for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, as Republicans revere Reagan? How many of them even know who Jackson was? In this era of Obamian retrenchment and retreat, we are a long way away from that commitment, articulated by Kennedy in his first inaugural address, to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today when talking about the Cold War, many liberals would rather focus on its occasional anti-communist excesses—McCarthyism at home, support for authoritarian dictatorships abroad—than the exponentially worse depredations of communism.
Or maybe the absence of liberals can be explained by conservatives wanting to claim the credit for victory over communism to themselves. In this reading, all glory goes to Reagan and the contributions made by Democrats are neglected. Even the aforementioned Jimmy Carter, in his final year as president, revised his view on the Soviet threat he had previously dismissed as over-hyped. Following their invasion of Afghanistan, Carter massively increased defense spending, levied a grain embargo, and issued a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Many Republicans underestimated, or were frankly clueless about, Soviet power; just witness Gerald Ford’s inexplicable 1976 debate gaffe in which he insisted that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” this at a time when hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were deployed there. Some of the most eloquent anti-communist intellectuals were democratic socialists, the first to go to the firing squad under any communist regime, and former communists themselves, men and women who had working knowledge of their ex-comrades’ ruthlessness and deception, but who never made the full conversion over to political conservatism.
Whether the lack of liberal involvement in the museum is the result of commission or omission, it is puzzling. Where are the labor leaders, who fought communist subversion at home and communist oppression abroad? Where are the Jewish leaders, who led an ecumenical campaign to free Soviet Jewry that inspired people all over the world? Where are the writers who helped smuggle samizdat out from behind the Iron Curtain?
Speaking of museum donors, the majority of whom “have a personal connection to a communist regime,” Smith says that “they wish their home country had a political discourse as healthy as ours.” Such admiration for the American system sounds strange in this era of gridlock and bickering. It would be a shame if something so monumental, so quintessentially American as the memory of opposition to communist totalitarianism also fell victim to political partisanship.