The Holodomor: 2–7 million dead.
The Gulag: 1.5 million dead.
The Great Leap Forward: 30 million dead.
These are just some of the grisly atrocities documented at the Victims of Communism Museum. Communism has left a trail of blood from Potsdam to Peking. The museum is dedicated to the memory of the some 100 million people who have lost their lives to this odious ideology.
The museum has been open for nearly a year, yet it has received little recognition in the mainstream press. A Washington Post story on the museum noted without irony that “this philosophy that killed tens of millions also inspired generations of activists” in America. Apparently, the museum isn’t balanced enough in its history of communism. Next to the exhibit on Stalin’s crimes they need to note the legions of left-wing labor activists it provided guidance to. That’s a sad reflection of our times: another indication that, at its philosophical foundation, the modern West struggles to contemplate and understand the wreckage that was imposed on millions of people by Marxist communist states. The reasons why are troubling and indicate that certain forms of Marxist ideology seeped into the Western mind, although not to the point that the American-led West was unable to defeat the Soviet Union.
It’s easy to think of communism as an unfortunate system afflicting poor souls in the far reaches of the earth. As British historian Arnold Toynbee sardonically put it, “History is something unpleasant that happens to other people.”
Yet history is never far from us. Substantial forms of the same spirit that animated the Bolsheviks run rampant in the West today.
The hesitancy of news outlets to recognize the importance of the Victims of Communism Museum has been entirely in keeping with the refusal of Western elites to reckon morally with communism’s casualties. Why wouldn’t leading outlets cover a museum that details the atrocities of communism, one of the biggest human-rights disasters of the 20th century? From New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty and Vice President Henry Wallace to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Hollywood, there has been no shortage of prominent communist sympathizers. We do not say that media outlets refusing to report on the museum are engaged in the same moral degradation as was Duranty, who lied about the Ukrainian starvation by Stalin. However, many Western thinkers and politicians found the ideology attractive or felt the need to dismiss its opponents. Why?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke to this point eloquently in his famed Harvard commencement address of 1978. While the audience expected a nicely delineated comparison between a wicked communist East and a free, liberal West, Solzhenitsyn excoriated the latter, characterizing it as afflicted with the same sickness that led to the horrors of the surveillance state, the KGB, and the Gulag.
The seed that bore this bitter fruit was planted centuries ago, he claimed, in the soil of Renaissance humanism, when man turned his gaze from God to himself and embraced the aphorism of Protagoras, “Man, the measure of all things.” Looking upon his own desires, he soon pursued earthly pleasures until “everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning.”
Man’s focus on himself reduced him to the material, temporal world. Whereas before he had seen himself as both spiritual and physical, his worldview was now diminished solely to the latter. Unshackled from piety, he was in his behavior not beholden to a superior being, nor did his ends remain spiritual.
As he further developed the arts of science, technology, and industrial scale, the Renaissance humanist abolished the physical limits that had been present since his beginning. Thus the modern world rose from the spires of Western Europe, destined to conquer the globe.
On this topic, Leo Strauss frequently referred to a quotation of Horace: “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will come back.” Modern man rejected that sentiment as he exercised his industrial prowess.
What results are two sides of the same modernist coin. Communism rejects the dignity of the human person, rejects the existence of God, and rejects moral truth itself. In its aim to abolish the family, religion, and private property, which are merely institutions that capital owners control to maintain power, communist ideology casts a totalizing control over the human soul. In the end, communism in practice must violently reject all higher limits that had been placed before it, in the hopes of creating the workers’ paradise.
Western liberalism, on the other hand, maintained limits for man as long as religious faith remained its foundation. Solzhenitsyn pointed out that the rights enumerated in the early American republic were “granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.” Divine limits were preeminent in the American Founding and were what allowed for such freedoms to be permitted by the republic.
With the leaps of industrial prowess, though, Man continued his turn from God that began in the humanist age. Increasingly, he eschewed those limits instilled by God and nature and turned toward what he could accomplish materially.
The communist East had violently abolished the limits and duties of man. The liberal West had discarded them voluntarily.
Modern man, impious, statist, and commercial, is left with only earthly ends. This false anthropology of the godlike man has become firmly entrenched in both communist and liberal nations. The former believes that man as the state can achieve all aims; the latter, that man as individual can do the same.
This abandonment of the spiritual ends and limits is why so many in the West cannot condemn the crimes of communism. The ideology provides an end in their temporal world, in which man need not adhere to the natural limits placed on him.
The words of Solzhenitsyn cry out this inevitability: “The current of materialism which is farthest to the left, and is hence the most consistent, always proves to be stronger, more attractive, and victorious. Humanism which has lost its Christian heritage cannot prevail in this competition.” Of course, American military, technological, political, and moral power provided the crucial reserves in defeating the Soviet Union. Reagan invoked spiritual and moral sentiments in his challenge to communism and rallied the opponents of communism to defeat it. The West was not wholly unregenerate, a fact that Solzhenitsyn overlooked. But he still accurately grasped the trends in Western thought that have led it to turn on its biblical heritage.
With those words in mind, we should contemplate the horrors shown at the Victims of Communism Museum not as distant historical facts but as the eventuality of the fallacy of hope that is modernity. This is not a call to return to a premodern age, which is neither possible nor desirable. Rather, we should seek to reignite that piety that understands man as God’s creation, not self-made, that recognizes our limits, and that sees our end not in an earthly paradise of this world but in the everlasting world of the hereafter.
Solzhenitsyn closed with declaring that the world “will demand from us a spiritual blaze.” If we want a viable alternative to a closed world of abysmal ends, then we would do well to heed him.
This piece originally appeared in the National Review