The Forgotten Millions

Communism is the deadliest fantasy in human history (but does anyone care?)

In January of this year the late Michael Kelly, who was a Washington Post columnist as well as the editor-at-large of this magazine, decried in the Post the fact that antiwar marches in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco were sponsored by an organization, called International ANSWER, that is "a front group for the communist Workers World Party," which is, "literally, a Stalinist organization." As he was sometimes known to do, Kelly worked up a bit of dudgeon: "The left marches with those who would maintain in power the leading oppressors of humanity in the world."

Shortly afterward the columnist and essayist Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation, advised him to calm down. "Kelly really should get out of the house more," she said. If he had attended the Washington march, as she did, he would have seen what a diverse and positive affair it was. She conceded that ANSWER was a "weird pseudomarxist sect," and she acknowledged its "off-key Stalinism and refusal to condemn Saddam Hussein," but she argued against taking any of that too seriously.

It always seemed to me that ANSWER spoke only for itself, that not many people were listening, and that if war was an unpopular plan, the movement against it would grow way beyond the capacity of ANSWER to control it or lead it. In fact, ANSWER may have unintentionally spurred the rest of us to get busy and come up with alternatives like United for Peace and Justice or the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.

Let me ask you, please, to go back and reread that paragraph, but this time make one change throughout: substitute the words "the American Nazi Party" for ANSWER. Or, if you prefer, substitute "the KKK." Notice how utterly out of place the author's insouciance suddenly seems. It is inconceivable that any self-respecting American intellectual would call a march sponsored by Nazis or Klansmen a worthy event. Yet when it comes to communists—well, what's the big deal?

Around the time of the Kelly-Pollitt exchange I attended a lecture in Washington that I can only describe as a consciousness-raising. It was given by Alan Charles Kors, a historian (of European intellectual history) at the University of Pennsylvania. For some years I've admired Kors's work opposing speech codes on university campuses, so I was drawn more by the speaker than by the subject—"Can there be an 'after socialism'?" I left feeling chastened.

Kors said this: "The West accepts an epochal, monstrous, unforgivable double standard. We rehearse the crimes of Nazism almost daily; we teach them to our children as ultimate historical and moral lessons; and we bear witness to every victim. We are, with so few exceptions, almost silent on the crimes of communism. So the bodies lie among us, unnoticed, everywhere." And so many bodies! Not six million but 60 million, or 100 million—in any case scores and scores of millions. Too many ever to number.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent.

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