The Communist Manifesto revisited

Published May 21, 1998

The Catholic Difference

Imagine what would happen if, in the year 2000, a publisher decided to mark the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf by issuing a handsome new commemorative edition, designed to be sold at up-market bookstores. Suppose that the publisher, to make the book visually unavoidable at sales counters, had commissioned a glossy cover extolling the Nazi swastika. Suppose further that the publisher had shelled out a small fortune for a massive marketing and advertising campaign, complete with store-front displays on Madison Avenue and expensive ads in the major national newspapers.

The result, certainly, would be a public wave of revulsion, followed by ringing condemnations of the publisher on every editorial and op-ed page in the country. The result would certainly not have been a puff-piece in the “Style” section of the Washington Post, arbiter of what passes for good taste in the nation’s capital.

Yet the latter is precisely what happened to Verso, a British publisher, and its May 1 publication of a 150th anniversary commemorative edition of the Communist Manifesto.

The Post‘s encomium seemed to find something amusing about Verso re-issuing the Manifesto, complete with a chic, red flag cover, as a kind of “fashion accessory, a post-postmodern joke. Fun and games with Karl (Marx) and Fritz (Engels).” This is portside insouciance of an obscene sort.

Here is what the Communist Manifesto helped accomplish:

In the Soviet Union — six millions deaths during the Ukrainian terror famine of 1932-33; 720,000 executions during Stalin’s Great Purge; seven million people condemned to the Gulag from 1934 to 1941, where millions perished.

In China — ten million “direct victims” of the communist take-over, with another probable twenty million victims of China’s hidden Gulag, the Laogai camps; more than twenty million dead in the famine during the “Great Leap Forward” of 1959-1961, the largest famine in human history.

In Cambodia — over a million dead, one-seventh of the national population.

And this does not begin to take account of what happened in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and other locales where the ideas of the Communist Manifesto held sway and countries were turned into abattoirs as a result.

Communism was a lethal plague that spared virtually no society, no culture, no religion in the twentieth century. But Christians ought to have a particular stake in protesting the frivolous celebration of a pamphlet, one of whose outcomes was the greatest persecution of the faithful in the history of the Church. Communism is not the only reason that the martyrology of the twentieth century dwarfs the lists of witnesses-unto-death from the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history. But it is the chief reason why that is so.

Ignorance is no longer an excuse in these matters. We know what happened under communism, and we know it from the records kept by communists. The publishing sensation in France this past year has been a best-seller called The Black Book of Communism in which scholars, using previously-unavailable archival material, estimate the butcher’s bill from “Karl and Fritz” (and Vladimir, Josef, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the rest) at between 85 million and 100 million human lives. The Communist Manifesto was thus the inspiration for what the distinguished historian Martin Malia has called “the most colossal case of political carnage in history.”

Why, then, is the Manifesto not automatically accorded the loathing rightly visited upon Mein Kampf? One reason is that the political left in the West has never comes to grips with what an earlier generation called “fellow-traveling.” But that only raises the further question, why no reckoning with such fatal political miscalculations?

The answer may lie in the fact that communism was a false religion. It had a doctrine (including theories of salvation and of the “last things”), a morality, a liturgical system, an apostolic succession. It was one expression of western secularism’s attempt to tear itself free from the authentic biblical roots of western civilization. Thus to admit that communism was wrong means at least contemplating the question of whether Judaism and Christianity might not be right: about human nature, human community, human history, and human destiny.

Which is, evidently, too much to ask of some people.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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