Alf Siewers | firstname.lastname@example.org
According to European scholars in The Black Book of Communism, 80 to 100 million people were killed by communist regimes in the last century, ranging from victims of labor camps to those of “food terror” famines.
This year marks the notorious centennial of the Russian Revolution, which gave birth to this phenomenon. The Black Book notes that the deadly global phenomenon of Communism had a direct genealogy from ideology and practices that grew out of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and also helped inspire Nazi death camps and methods.
On our secular and leftward-tilting campus there are no solemn remembrances or critical examinations of this communist phenomenon scheduled currently. On the contrary, occasionally there are displays of Red Army and communist images by faculty with apparent approbation, as one faculty member quoted Lenin seemingly approvingly in a discussion, all without remark.
Nazis ideas and insignias understandably are taboo, given the horrible record of the Nazi regime, to the extent that even a quarter-sized swastika drawn on a bathroom stall prompts campus-wide soul-searching (as should be the case), and periodically campus hosts remembrances and critical examinations of the Holocaust (as should be the case). But why the silence in the case of communism?
While understandably there is criticism in US history of McCrthyism, sometimes an hysterical and needlessly damaging search in Cold War America for Communist enemies within our society, and a demonizing of people so labeled, today some of the same spirit arguably infuses the loose categorizing by the Left of people as fascists or by other labels.
Yet totalitarian movements are dangerous in the willingness of individuals to devote themselves to ideology as a kind of new religion without God, in which paradoxically the ultimate autonomy of the individual leads to servitude to an ideological cause without moral restraint. The release of information from Soviet and US intelligence archives in recent years has revealed that there indeed was a widespread Communist spy network in the US, knowledge of which was kept from the public by US intelligence agencies. Its extensive nature ironically largely was missed in McCarthyite politics.
And if someone was known to have been a Nazi ally, would that justify blackballing or expecting public repentance, given the atrocities of that system’s deadly acts? If so, why not for a Communist after some of the atrocities of that system had become known?
The philosopher and Jewish exile from Nazism Hannah Arendt noted in her classic The Origins of Totalitarianism that totalitarian movements and regimes on both the Left (Communism) and Right (Nazism) had a common core: Terror identified with isolation. Both involved the categorization of people and quotas for their persecution, often immersing them culturally according to Arendt in a social identity fostering the mentality of being able to embrace being both persecutor and thought/identity criminal simultaneously. In the case of Nazism it was racial genocide, in the case of Communism class and cultural genocide.
Our blindspots often tell as much or more about ourselves as our ideals.
My children are the first in a few generations in their family line able to be publicly baptized and express their faith identity. Millions of my faith community were killed or tortured or silenced under Communism, as many are today in the Middle East by radical extremists acting falsely under the banner of Islam. The memory of the Communist persecutions is a trauma still within the warp and weft of our tradition, and those slain dwell within our transgenerational and living memory continually in our services and homes, and in what we call the “joyful sorrow” of the martyr saints who form a part of our extended family.
Defending both free expression and opposing the hateful categorization of people for quota-style persecution, from the Right or Left, is the best way to remember the tragic centennial of the Russian Revolution.
This is indicated strangely by two of the most critically acclaimed films of the Western genre that typified American myth-making in the twentieth century: High Noon and Rio Bravo. High Noon was made according to its script writer, a former Communist who was later blacklisted, as an allegory critiquing McCarthyism, although its director, a Jewish refugee from Nazism, saw it as an allegory for the dangers of appeasing Hitler. Rio Bravo was made as a response to High Noon, to emphasize how average Americans could stand up against Communism. The common denominator: Bravery and decency in the face of bullying by power-hungry and violent organized crime, which in their allegories rightly equate with totalitarian systems.
Today, both films remain classics, even as their precise political contexts have faded in the minds of twenty-first-century audiences for classic 1950s Western films. What remains in them is a lesson of virtue from the battle against totalitarianism on both the Left and the Right in the last century: The importance of moral courage, free expression, resistance to objectifying one’s self or others in the name of ideology, and an active love for community and other human beings—all in the struggle to be an authentic person. They remind us of the biblical dictum for love of country and community and human beings versus totalitarianism: “Greater love hath no man than this, to give up his life for his friends.” Not to give up life for ideology, Big Brother, or the deep state.
To such virtue-lessons I would add discernment of the dangers in our secular age of replacing God with worship of an idea or ideology, turning toward power. The historically unprecedented mass killings of the twentieth century were committed in the name of humanity, not God.
The Russians have a saying in their church funerals: “Memory eternal.” It forms the end of Dostoevsky’s classic book The Brothers Karamazov. Its purposeful ambiguity means both a call to keep those departed in memory and a prayer for God to remember them—really an affirmation that we are all related to each other in the larger mystery God’s memory, beyond whatever any categories and objectifications that mortal ideologies might impose