The Temper of Communism

The Temper of Communism. While Mao without doubt has written a new chapter in the development of communism, it is Lenin who remains its characteristic exponent. In spite of the semi-scholastic quality of Lenin’s though this constant practice of seeming to spin concrete answers out of a dialectical manipulation of abstractions its effective characteristic was not logic but a moral tone or bias that he imparted to communism.


What tied him to Marx was not cogency of argument but dedication to social revolution as the sole and the certain means of human progress, and he found this in Marx’s revolutionary pamphlets rather than in the arid dialectic of Capital.

What Lenin bequeathed to communism was a moral attitude far more important than its intellectual content. It was this which made communism a faith, a sense of vocation, a militant partizanship, a devotion to principle coupled indeed with a good deal of casuistry in its defense. The similarity to seventeenth-century Calvinism is obvious, and the comparison has repeatedly been made, but the content of the two moralities was different.

Calvinism at its best was devotion to individual integrity and freedom; communism at its best has been devotion to a party and a cause-in the words of Arthur Koestler’s hero in Darkness at Noon, to be useful without vanity,Both moralities had a common weakness, for the normal human relies from crowding all of life into a single end is hypocrisy.

It has become usual to level at communism a criticism often leveled in its day at Calvinism that for it the end justifies the means. Yet in both cases this criticism is misplaced. The end must justify the means for any ethics that believes itself to possess a single formula, never to be questioned or reconsidered, to cover the whole meaning of human life. For such an ethics morality is by definition what contributes to bringing mankind to that one supreme end, which can mean only that morality is essentially instrumental and manipulative. This has always been in a marked degree characteristic of communist ethics.

Lenin repeatedly said that, for a proletarian, morality must be keyed to the interests of his class and its struggle for power. To be sure, the struggle was expected to end in a society in which each should contribute to his ability and receive according to his needs. But this vague formula, which any man of good will might subscribe to, was never given any content beyond the success of the revolution itself.

For an ethics of this sort Calvinism could claim logical justification, for it believed itself to be in possession of a divine revelation and a divine mandate. With no such justification, and in the name of what he called science, Lenin assigned to Marxism the role both of morals and religion.

His party combined incongruously the prerogative both of scientist and priest, and thus became an elite entrusted with the whole program of human progress, empowered to direct not only government and the economy but literature and the arts. With such a mandate it had the selfless dedication of the prophet and also the intolerance and the ruthlessness of the fanatic.

Critics have often said, and it may well be true, that human nature cannot long sustain such a height of dedication. that the fanaticism of a generation of revolutionists cannot be transmitted to a second or a third generation; that it is bound to be eroded by time and most of all by success. The prophets of 1917 are extinct, many of them destroyed by the revolution they made.

Even if this is true, it may not prove that the spirit has vanished without a trace. It may still be true that the Soviet leaders of today, matter-of-fact technicians and managers though they are, still believe as sincerely as Lenin that communism is the wave of the future.

They may work with the conviction that time is on their side, that a capitalist society and its liberal political institutions are inherently unstable and contain the seeds of their own dissolution, in less than the ultimate sense in which all human creations are ephemeral.

In their own estimation they may genuinely believe that they are confronted with something in its nature inferior, outgrown, primitive, and therefore bad; something moreover that is implacably their enemy, as the good is always the enemy of the better.

If indeed they have this conviction, it still commits them to no definite line of policy toward the non-communist West, for co-existence, though necessarily impermanent, may still be of indefinite duration; Marxian predictions are characteristically without time limits. Since in the fullness of time communism is to inherit the world, they might reasonably leave the capitalist world to be destroyed by its recurrent depressions and wars.

If it is held together in a precarious alliance by the pressure of its communist rival, farsighted policy might even suggest relaxing the pressure to let the internal contradictions of the system do their work. But clearly, if a judicious push were needed to help a regime, dead but not decently buried,

into its grave, there could be no conceivable moral reason to hold one’s hand. All this may quite reasonably describe the attitude and presumptions of Lenin’s matter-of-fact successors. Obviously such a belief needs no evidence to support it and is impervious to evidence against it. For if capitalism and communism are conceived as antithetical, all-inclusive systems, the world cannot be big enough to hold both.

Other critics of communism, themselves addicted to dialectic, like to point out that it, too, is infected with contradictions. Its road to utopia leads through industrialization, and an industrial civilization is impossible without a generally educated population and a highly educated staff of scientists and technicians.

In spite of its constant pressu7e toward indoctrination, Soviet education has in fact produced, in hardly more than a generation and starting almost from scratch, a wide range of literacy and a very high level of scientific competence.

Is this not undermining the very system it is designed to support? For a widely educated public, it is said, wit! not permanently submit to totalitarian control or despotic government; an educated population must support a public. opinion which even arbitrary power is bound to heed.

This criticism, too, like the preceding, may even be valid up to a point. Since the death of Stalin Soviet government has unquestionably changed greatly. It has ceased to depend on habitual terrorism and brutality; it has controlled the arbitrary powers of the secret police and-has taken from them the administration of forced labor and the concentration camps.

By a self-denying ordinance the party has brought its ordinary operations that do not affect its political ends within the limits of law. Its control of artists and writers at least stops short of liquidation; it no longer subjects science to whims like Stalin’s dislike of Mendelism; and it has given latitude to history so long as the party’s own myths are not touched.

All these changes have come about in hardly more than six years; and very likely because the stupidity and brutality of Stalin’s regime ended in a disciplined lethargy. Yet it is strangely uncritical, after two world wars, to imagine that an educated public of necessity supports a liberal political system.

In 1914 Germany had probably the most widely literate population and the highest level of technology in the world, but this did not make the Record Empire politically liberal or save Germany from the absurdity of national socialism and the barbarism of Hitler’s rule. Nothing but the remnant of an eighteenth century myth supports the notion that an intelligent and educated population must invent the practices of political democracy.

These are not invented but depend on underlying social institutions. In Western Europe at least, their sine qua non seems to have been a society which permitted the existence side by side of multiple centers of power which had to adjust their differences by mutual consultation and agreement.

This is just the state of affairs that the communist party is least likely to tolerate voluntarily, for it violates both theory and practice. Any rise in living standards, any extension of cultural liberties, any extension of education is easier to imagine in Russia than effective constitutional limitations on the direction of the party and its top leadership. One of the Soviet government’s top law officers, commenting on the relaxations of the last few years, said to an American professor of law, If it becomes necessary we will restore the old methods. But I think it will not be necessary.

The communist party of the present is indeed a new party, far different from the little band of radicals, skilled only in methods of agitation and revolutionary conspiracy, with which Lenin took power in 1917, just as the Russia which the party rules is far different from the war-torn fragment of a country that Lenin took over. The party has grown in size, though not more than the magnitude and complexity of its tasks, for its membership is still highly selective and the selection is made by a long course of rigid discipline.

Though it broadens its base by recruiting a number of workers and farmers, it has long ceased to be a proletarian party in anything but name, for it has long ceased to give preference to candidates of working-class origin. Yet it has been the road of opportunity for many a poor but able boy.

On the average it is vastly better educated than Lenin’s party, yet its members include some, like Khrushchev, who learned to read and write after they became adult. Its membership is heavily weighted on the side of technicians, managers, and officials, who have designed, or managed, or governed projects as large as any in the world. The party is still an elite but one that aims to include all the men and women who fill important positions in every walk of life, industrial, political, and intellectual.

Yet with all the changes in the party, and with all the changes in its task, one can look in vain for any principle of of organization or function not Included In the plan that Lenin drew for it in 1902, In one of the descriptions of the party that Lenin wrote that year he used the metaphor of an orchestra and of the top party leader ship as its conductor. The conductor knows and directs every instrument; he knows which are playing out of tune; and he knows how the parts must be changed to produce perfect harmony.

This figure of speech describes the party’s conception of itself as accurately today as it expressed Lenin’s conception of the party he wished to create. It comes far closer to describing the actual performance of the party today than it ever did in Lenin’s lifetime. The arrogance of the party’s appraisal of its virtuosity has not changed in 1958 Khrushchev told the party, in words that Lenin might have used, Spontaneity, comrades, is the deadliest enemy of all.

In the meantime the achievement with which the party can back its pretensions has surpassed all sober expectations. It has blundered, at times egregiously, but never irretrievably. Under Stalin it proceeded with a degree of inhumanity and sheer wickedness rarely matched by a regime whose ends were, on the whole, constructive, and which may still provide a burden of guilt for its elder leaders who were Stalin’s accomplices. Yet the party has produced a leadership with the competence and also the moral toughness equal to its task, and it has successfully buried its mistakes and its crimes even when they were numbered by millions.

Through it all the party has demonstrated what at the start was freely predicted to be impossible that a planned economy is not only workable but is capable of a rate of growth which will certainly enable it to catch up with the industrial system it set out to match and which may in the end permit it to surpass that system. In so doing it created a model which may be widely imitated by peoples the world over whose social and economic problems are generally similar to those that the party faced in Russia.

What the success of the party has not demonstrated and apparently cannot demonstrate is that the unquestionable values it has created can include the values of political liberty measurably realized in the competitive economies of the West. For a system that puts complete control of the economy and complete control of government in the same hands seems unlikely to develop along lines parallel to those followed by Western democracy.

Either economic system has demonstrated its Capacity to create a more than adequate standard of living when a catastrophic increase of population is controlled. And the two systems together share the primal absurdity of twentieth-century international politics both devote a substantial proportion of their resources to constructing a weapon which neither dares use, and which through sheer inadvertence or blundering may destroy the need for any standard of living at all.

Read More Related Topics:

The Philosophy of Communism
Russian Marxism
Lenin’s Theory of The Party
Lenin on Dialectical Materialism
The Bourgeois and the Proletarian Revolutions
Imperialist Capitalism
Approach to March Revolution
Revolution in Prospect
The Problem of Success in Bolshevik Revolution
The Vanguard of the Proletariat
Lenin Doctrine of Democratic Centralism
Socialism in One Country
Communism in China

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