In the run-up to Theresa May’s speech on Brexit in Florence, there was one of those minor kerfuffles that tell us in passing some odd little truth about the modern world and how we are governed. It began as a standard political correspondent’s report of a change in Whitehall and its significance: The senior civil servant in the Department for Exiting the European Union, or DEXEU, one Olly Robbins, had left the ministry to become the full-time adviser on Brexit to the prime minister in Downing Street.
“Full time”? Well, Mr. Robbins was already splitting his time between DEXEU and Number 10. His departure was therefore written up as a sign that DEXEU and its secretary of state, David Davis, were losing influence on the direction of Brexit policy and going down a few rungs in the Whitehall pecking order. One down for Davis, it appeared.
Next day, however, the departure of Robbins suddenly looked less embarrassing to Davis. Maybe it had even given him a modest fillip or at least saved him from a real embarrassment. For the conservative blogger Guido Fawkes had uncovered an article that Robbins had written in the 1990s, when he was a student at Oxford, praising the Soviet Union and expressing some regret that it had collapsed a few years before.
Naturally, he did so in a properly cautious and measured way: “I would never disagree that some of the deeds done in the name of Communism were evil, but it is as well to look at the era’s aims and achievements.”
Those evil deeds, incidentally, include the forced famine in Ukraine that murdered millions in a particularly horrible fashion; starting the Second World War jointly with Hitler by agreeing in the Nazi–Soviet Pact to invade Poland and the Baltic states; the Gulag in which millions more perished; and much more. So it’s good that he’s on the record disapproving of them.
That done, Robbins got down to listing the Soviet achievements. Here his judgments are less armored against criticism. Let’s go down an abbreviated list:
“The experiment which failed is what liberal Russians call the Soviet era — and yet no one seems to have noticed that the experiment was hardly conducted in fair conditions.”
No one seems to have noticed . . . ! This was the standard argument of fellow-travelers once it was clear that the Soviet economy was an economic basket case and that the regime was a totalitarian monstrosity that murdered its opponents (and quite often its supporters too). All nations that underwent an industrial revolution started from poverty and backwardness, but the British, the French, the Americans, and other non-Communist countries married political progress to economic progress — to the point where democracy arrived and the competitive appeal of Communism gradually evaporated.
Political reforms were slower and resisted more strongly in Russia by Left and Right, but the radicals’ assassination of Stolypin, the most important Czarist reformer, would not have held them back indefinitely. Pressure for constitutional change was growing and economic progress would have increased it. But the system of planning under Communism disrupted the efficient allocation of resources, producing shortages and gluts alongside each other, on top of which periodic purges and executions of managers and experts groundlessly accused of “sabotage” completed the destruction. The Communist experiment failed above all because it was Communist.
“The Soviet leaders changed Russia from a backward peasant autocracy, despised by the West, into a technological giant at whom the world cowered in fear for half a century.”
Where to begin? Russia was already a fast-industrializing capitalist economy prior to the First World War — the fifth largest economy in the world. One of the main reasons for Germany’s decision to go to war was that the Russians would overtake them economically and strategically if they did not defeat them first. If that war had not given the Bolsheviks the opportunity to seize power in a coup, Russia would have continued its economic rise. Economically, the Soviet Union was a massive failure 70 years later to the point where Gorbachev complained to the Politburo that it exported less annually than Singapore.
Technically, it lagged in every field except the military, where a massive concentration of capital and research, amounting to at least 25 percent of GDP, ensured that an otherwise backward economy could match the U.S. in nuclear and rocket technology. Even then, Soviet leaders recognized that it couldn’t compete with the U.S. in the newer technology of missile defense and sued for peace. The cost of this military spending was borne by Russian consumers starved of everyday goods and by Russian industry and agriculture starved of capital resources and modern management. The result was an economic wasteland before which not even its satellites and constituent republics cowered.
“The Russian state has endured more than any other major nation in the 20th century, and has achieved more too. Among these were the aims of free and fair education, housing, and health care. . . . What is more, they were achieved. More Russians can read than Britons, there are almost no homeless people in Moscow, unlike London . . . ”
Reality check: Achieved more than the United States? More than Britain? More than Singapore? Or Japan? Or Australia? Or Taiwan? Or Hong Kong? All of them doubled and redoubled their per capita incomes in the last centuries like successful players of roulette. No liberal capitalist country achieved as little as the Russian state between 1917 and 1991 at the cost of so much investment and (forced) human effort.
The Russian people have certainly endured more than most countries in the last century, mainly at the hands of the Russian state or its reincarnation as the USSR, either directly as in the Gulag or indirectly through allying itself in aggressive war with Hitler and then suffering the consequences when its ally turned on them. Millions died from both causes. The only people which can be said to match their suffering in the last century is the Chinese people, and of course they have achieved an astonishing economic rise since they abandoned orthodox Communism for an authoritarian capitalism. On top of that, it is a fantasy that the USSR compensated for these failures by making greater social gains than liberal capitalism: Doctors had to be bribed; patients had to take bandages and medicines into hospital with them; homelessness in Moscow was reduced by an internal passport system that kept people out of the city; and so on.
One undoubted achievement was that the Red Army tore the guts out of the German war machine to the world’s great benefit. But the fairest way of describing that achievement would be that it was the USSR that helped Hitler to start the war and gave him the means to invade Mother Russia, but it was a Mother Russia who inspired her sons and daughters to fight and sacrifice their way to defeating him (in part by discarding her Communist attire).
“To the thinking man and woman, Soviet Russia may not have been ideal, but it was food for thought in the ‘greed is good’ climate of the 1980s.”
Well, the best answer to that argument comes from Hayek: “The last resort of the competitive economy is the bailiff, but the ultimate sanction of a planned economy is the hangman.” Nor is that a purely abstract debating point. Only two years before Mr. Robbins was writing, mass graves were being found across the Soviet Union, some containing as many as 300,000 corpses. One was in Moscow itself. Greed may be a personal vice, but it’s only one of many self-chosen goals that power capitalism — others include altruism, the drive to solve problems (e.g., disease), and even the desire for approbation made concrete in the “edifice complex” — and its negative consequences are far less horrendous than those of envy and the lust for dominance that powered Communism.
So much for the thoughts of a civil servant when young. Having been young myself once and gone through several changes of mind since then, I’m not disposed to be overly censorious. We all make mistakes, recover from them, stagger on, and then make different mistakes. The middle-aged mandarin looks back at the youthful socialist with sadness for his lost illusions. I’m even inclined to feel slightly guilty for putting on a pair of hobnailed boots and jumping up and down on what a young undergraduate wrote in his salad days.
That said, his little essay raises two questions. The first is: Why did he believe such things? After all, he was writing immediately after the 1989 and 1991 Velvet Revolutions had revealed both the economic wasteland and the genocidal charnel-house created by the 1917 Revolution. But he paid more attention to the theory than to its results.
His admiration for that theory, his sympathy for its ambitions, and his tendency to glide over its failures are worrying things. They suggest he is what Adam Smith called a Man of System of whom he wrote: “The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”
Another enduring mark of such minds is that they prefer large enterprises and centralized direction to a multitude of competing actors operating in an environment of dispersed authority. They don’t see how this uncoordinated activity (“greed”) of millions will get what they want done—especially on the shortened time-scale they demand. When the system of competition actually produces abundance, especially if it’s an abundance of things they personally don’t value, they are inclined to see it as “waste.” Yet when they direct resources to the production of other “social” goods that in the event don’t materialize, they find themselves measuring their success by inputs rather than outputs. And when that is done on a national or continental scale, the result is the Tower of Babel or some other Utopia.
If the Tower of Babel evokes for you the European Union, that may not be purely coincidental. It’s a little disturbing, therefore, that someone who once displayed the characteristics of the Man of System should be placed in charge of negotiating the U.K.’s departure from the European Union. Such a mind will have an instinctive admiration for a vast continental polity over a medium-sized nation-state. Given the right policies, he might think, the EU could become a superpower equal to China and the U.S. before which lesser nations would cower. Worrying? Yes, but surely not very worrying. Mr. Robbins is, when all is said and done, a civil servant whose political masters will take the final decisions. And they apparently heard no echo of these ideas in his official work. See Oliver Letwin’s new book, Hearts and Minds, for an admiring portrait of Mr. Robbins from the top of David Cameron’s administration.
The second question is: How come no one seems to have noticed or remembered opinions that were, ahem, controversial at the time? And the answer — which is also a strong defense for Mr. Robbins — is that although these were not majority opinions, they were shared by a very large number of the clever people around him. His article was published, after all, in a little college magazine (called, with an almost reckless disregard of mockery, Progressive Thinker) that otherwise seems to be of a broadly left-liberal character, in one of the world’s great universities. Today a student might go through four years of education in some colleges without having his left-liberal prejudices sharply challenged. Indeed, such prejudices would far more likely be confirmed and set in a concrete. These great institutions throughout the West are increasingly what Jeane Kirkpatrick called “islands of totalitarianism in a sea of freedom.” Even then, however, sympathy for the ruthless imposition of “social justice” in places from Cambodia to Cuba was widespread on the academic left.
Indeed, it was embraced by significant minorities of the metropolitan intelligentsia, British society, and the wider West. The Soviet Union had been largely overtaken by Fidel Castro, the Sandinistas, and other radical-left regimes in the sympathies of the Western Left by the 1980s. Its prestige had never really recovered from such undeniable betrayals as the Nazi–Soviet pact and the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. It was seen as dull and gerontocratic. For a variety of reasons, however, the Soviets never received the wholesale moral condemnation that their mass murders and other crimes plainly warranted. Serious media and current-affairs journalism did cover the crimes and failures of Communism as they occurred. But as the Vietnam War and the 1968 “revolutionaries” increasingly shaped Western attitudes across the political spectrum, so the ambivalent attitudes of moral equivalence towards East and West familiar from the novels of John Le Carré emerged as a kind of new moral status quo. In this environment, Communism’s past crimes gripped the moral imagination of the intelligentsia less and less. And when the Cold War finally ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Kremlin counter-coup, a brief moment of celebrating freedom was followed by an atmosphere of anti-climax — “not with a bang but a whimper.”
It was in this curious post-Communist mood of post–Cold War weariness that Mr. Robbins wrote his nostalgic lament for Communism. He wasn’t alone. Firmly anti-Communist governments were not immune to this atmosphere: The Blair government gave Britain’s second-highest honor, the Companionship of Honour, to the undoubtedly distinguished Communist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who, pressed by the interviewer Michael Ignatieff, had argued in a television interview that Stalin’s mass murders were justified by the hope that they would result in an ideal society. Apart from a morally angry protest from fellow-historian David Pryce-Jones, this award was greeted with mild approval to lack of interest in the media and academia.
The truth of the matter is that the West never confronted the radical evil of Communism as it confronted that of Nazism. Both Left and Right had their reasons for forgetting the past as Communism imploded in front of them: The Right wanted a smooth diplomatic resolution of the Cold War and therefore avoided anything that smacked of Nuremberg, crimes against humanity, justice, or, as the smooth diplomatic evasion had it, Western “triumphalism.” The Left needed to throw a cloak over its own underlying sympathy and occasional support for the Soviet experiment and over the family resemblances between democratic socialism and “really existing socialism.”
Coverage of the discovery of the mass graves in the early 1990s, for instance, was sketchy, perfunctory and quickly consigned to Orwell’s memory hole. And as memories fade further, so there is a greater willingness to look on the brighter side of totalitarianism. A recent series in the New York Times has treated Communism as — yes, you guessed it — a noble experiment conducted in less than ideal conditions. With the recent upsurge of quasi-revolutionary socialist politics in Britain, the Labour party now boasts leaders who have a relatively rosy view of the 1917 Revolution. Jeremy Corbyn’s senior aide, Seamus Milne, is on record as giving a low estimate that the USSR executed 799,455 people and going on to conclude: “For all its brutalities and failures, Communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialization, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality.” Celebrations of the two 1917 Revolutions in London, now Londongrad as much as Londonistan, have an ambiguous flavor combining modernist sculptures, concerts of Russian revolutionary music, and special vodka cocktails with lectures on Bolshevism by the remaining true believers. It’s even possible that the celebrations in London and other European capitals will be more positive than those in Russia. “It is going to be very interesting to see how the official narrative explains the events of 1917,” Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Putin’s former “political technologists,” told the Guardian. “It will be portrayed simultaneously as a great event and a terrible tragedy.”
And the victims of Communism? They risk being airbrushed out of history again in much the same way as the Bolshevik leaders whom Stalin purged were “non-personed” out of earlier photographs. The mass murders carried out by Communist regimes — around the world but especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe — have caused only a handful of Communist leaders in the Soviet bloc (and some small fry such as border guards who shot escapers) to face punishment for committing or assisting one of the greatest crimes in human history. Most former apparatchiks live far better lives today than those of the people they once misgoverned and oppressed. And their sympathizers in the West, mostly but not entirely on the left, seek to smother any interest in this crime by, among other tactics, arguing that those raising it are prompted by a desire to “relativize the Holocaust.” Of course, neither the Holocaust nor the Gulag should be cited to relativize the other; each is a unique historical crime; but both deserve to be remembered and their victims mourned.
An opportunity to redress the West’s amnesia on this issue is provided by the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution this year. This is such a world-historical event that the establishment media and the mainstream parties will have to treat it seriously and in depth — and any such examination cannot avoid severe condemnation. Attempts to ensure that the tens of millions of Communism’s victims finally receive some sort of justice, even if posthumously, have already been launched and should command our attention.
In Brussels a conference asking the apposite question “Why was there not a Nuremberg for Communism?” was held last week in the European Parliament under the auspices of the European Conservatives and Reformers Group of MEPs supported by several organizations devoted to remembering victims of the Gulag and the show trials. In Washington Niall Ferguson and Natan Sharansky will be among the speakers at what promises to be a truly historic conference on Truth, Justice, Memory organized by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, here. In Budapest on November 8, Professor Robert Service, the distinguished historian of Russia, will deliver the Robert Conquest Memorial Lecture in honor of the great Anglo-American historian who first documented the scale and horror of Stalin’s purges and the forced Ukrainian famine in his books The Great Terror and the Harvest of Sorrow. Professor Service will receive the Danube Prize for his own historical works and he will be among a long list of distinguished speakers — including David Pryce-Jones, Charles Crawford, Norman Stone, and Aron Mathe of Hungary’s National Committee on Remembrance — at the next day’s Danube Institute conference on One Hundred Years of Communism. There will be, I know, many similar commemorations. I would be grateful if readers could send me information about them.
It’s important. From their unquiet graves, the victims of Communism cry to Heaven not for vengeance but for justice. We cannot give that to them. But we can give them and their families the assurance that they have not been forgotten by History until justice arrives in a higher court.
©2017 National Review. Used with permission.
[Originally posted at National Review on October 25th, 2017.]