Review of “Utopia in Four Movements”

This guest column appeared in the Daily Iowan on Nov 11, 2011:

I think my Ukrainian heritage fuels my twin obsessions with Soviet history and economics. Sadly, this often puts me on opposing ideological ground from my good friends and fellow alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which recently helped bring “Utopia in Four Movements,” to Iowa City’s local, tax-supported theater.

Sam Green, the filmmaker who narrated the exploration of “the battered state of the utopian impulse,” on one hand described socialism has having gone “monstrously wrong,” and on the other, expressed open sentimentality for the Russian and Maoist revolutions. He showed pictures of executed Cambodians and also said a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book was among his favorite possessions.

For any readers who may have left the theater with a sense of moral ambiguity, I offer this brief history lesson.

In “The Black Book of Communism,” French researchers estimate communist China slaughtered 65 million of its own citizens. Estimates of Soviet citizens killed by their leaders range from 20 million to 62 million made by political science professor R. J. Rummel. In Cambodia, after an unholy combination of Marx and Rousseau, they attempted an agrarian based communist society and managed, in an astonishingly short period of time, to slaughter almost a third of their population. Perhaps Stalin was right. Killing one person is a tragedy. Killing millions is only a statistic.

The sound of societies turning into gigantic meat grinders was accompanied by three choruses from leftist intellectuals. One sang “It’s not so bad.” Perhaps its leading performer was New York Times reporter Walter Duranty who won a Pulitzer Prize for dismissing the starvation of six to ten million Ukrainians as “malignant propaganda.”

The second chorus sang “next time”: Forget Lenin’s hostages and mass executions, forget the extermination of the Don Cossacks. The right people weren’t in charge. Forget the Gulag Archipelago. Forget China’s Great Leap Forward and North Korea’s Arduous March. Forget the cannibalism. Revoke private property and this next time, we will deliver paradise.

The last chorus sang “that’s not real communism.” For them, I present some of Marx’s and Engels’s less publicized writing: In the January 1849 edition of Marx’s journal “Neue Rheinische Zeitung,” Engels wrote, “Basques, Scottish Highlanders, Serbs are racial trash and will have to be destroyed.” Marx wrote in his “People’s Paper,” April 16, 1852, “The classes and races too weak to master the new conditions of life must give way. They must perish in the Revolutionary Holocaust.”

Mr. Green showed a picture of Bolshevik soldiers marching during the Russian Revolution and wondered how exciting it would have felt to be among them. By what standards does he go sentimental? If it’s brute force combined with a glorious vision of the future, he could easily include Germany’s National Socialists (i.e. Nazis) on his list of supposedly noble and only slightly misguided movements. They had a great vision too, for the living.

Contrary to what I learned in school, the National Socialists of Germany were not ideologically opposite from the Marxist-Leninist Socialists of the Soviet Union. Their great difference lay in the fact that one slaughtered millions according to race, and the other slaughtered millions according to “class” — the ambiguous, undefined term at the center of Marxism. They were two wings of the same cult of state power, determined to carve society into a better version of itself using bullets and bayonets. It deserves no sentimentalism.

Let’s hope the “state of the utopian impulse” remains battered.