Common estimates of the number of victims of communism range between 85 and 100 million. Besides the death toll, regimes that have claimed the communist label for their own have caused incalculable economic damage, poverty and suffering—not to speak of the debilitating effects that totalitarianism has had on culture and informal norms. I was born in the 1980s in communist Czechoslovakia, so I can’t claim to remember the height of the Stalinist terror. Yet I do have vivid memories of living in a country where foreign books and magazines were mostly unavailable, where secret police could wiretap phones at whim, where most desirable job occupations were restricted to loyal party members and where people could not travel abroad freely.
To accuse Westerners sporting communist symbols of being complicit in the crimes of communism is beside the point. For the most part, they have no desire to impose a dictatorship of the proletariat on their respective countries. But nevertheless, it is striking to see how lightly such displays are taken—particularly compared to the ostracization of symbols of other totalitarian regimes. Consider how outraged most people would be if someone chose to display a swastika or a portrait of Adolf Hitler in a public space—so why the tolerance for hammer and sickle and Che Guevara?
The culture of political correctness that is pervasive in America and increasingly so in Europe has been a subject of ridicule by many on the political Right. My feeling is that ostracizing certain forms of rhetoric and conduct—including homophobia or racism—has been largely a force for the good, in spite of the excesses it has come with. But the rise in political correctness makes the double standard applied to communism even more difficult to understand.
Different explanations are available. While many in the West have been affected by the atrocities of the Second World War, few have relatives who perished in Soviet gulags or during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In spite of a large body of scholarship, it appears that only very few people understand the magnitude of the crimes of communism, partly because of how they were perpetrated. Paul Hollander, a sociologist of Hungarian descent, wrote:
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.
And, unlike totalitarian ideologies built around ideas of racial supremacy, communism’s ideal of a classless and scarcity-less society, is not immediately repugnant—in fact, it has long appealed to intellectual elites around the world. Even the political violence, says Hollander,
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.
But regardless of whether we can answer the question of why the display of communist symbols does not carry the same stigma as some other ideologies, we are justified in trying to change that—even if only out of respect for the millions of communism’s victims around the world.
Moreover, there is something to be said about that tiresome Burke quote, namely that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” While it is unlikely that the ideology of Marx and Lenin makes a comeback, there is value in understanding its nature and the mechanisms through which it led to the unprecedented human catastrophe we saw in the 20th century, particularly given that most people still find it quite counterintuitive that “humans motivated by lofty ideals are capable of inflicting great suffering with a clear conscience,” as Hollander puts it.
What exactly can be done? I am no fan of cultural wars, but if I had to pick one, this would be it. Clearly, there is a hugely important place for scholarly research and proselytizing about the evils of communism, and more people should be reading books like this, this and this, and talking about them. And more people should be writing them.
And if you are, like me, bothered by the appeal of communist symbols, you might decide to take action by engaging with your local leftie wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. Try to talk some sense into them (for they know not what they do), and if that does not help, do feel free to ridicule and shame them. Otherwise, keep hiding in your Caplanian bubble.