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Saturday, December 1, 1990

A Reviewers Notebook: Basic Communism

To be confronted with the task of reviewing Clarence B. Carson’s monumental Basic Communism (American Textbook Committee, P.O. Box 8, Wadley, AL 36276, 570 pages, $29.95 cloth) for a fixed deadline certainly causes mixed feelings. Each section provides pleasurable reading. But to be forced to gulp everything down in a few days is a cruel and unusual punishment. This book should be taken advisedly as a year’s project. It is the only way to assure fairness.

As the author of innumerable Cold War period columns, I felt while reading it that I was living my life all over again at a tremendous clip. Carson tells his story from fragmentary beginnings. There was no real Communism until the 20th century. What we had were socialistic Brook Farms, descriptions of “voyages to Icarie,” and Fabian Society lecture groups. We had also had the speculations of Marx and Engels, and we had a Russian named Lenin who, in his Swiss hideout, nurtured the idea that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would necessarily involve seizure of the government of a whole state. Modern Communism, which he and his group of “professionals” imposed on Russia, had perforce to be a one-man show. Otherwise it would deteriorate (Carson uses the word “debacle”) into regional enclaves very much as is happening now.

The modern Communists have been doing theft best to disguise the mess they have made of Russia. But calculated disinformation can’t hide what is happening. Carson doesn’t fall for the idea that Stalin (whom Lenin feared for his “rudeness”) perverted the course of Marxist-Leninist history. Like Max Eastman, Carson thinks one-man role was inherent in the Marx-Engels philosophy from the beginning. It could have been Trotsky or Bukharin in Soviet Russia, or somebody besides Pol Pot and Ho Chi Mirth in Indochina, or Che Guevera instead of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Carson offers good biographical sketches of all his main characters. Before Marx, there were Robespierre and other totalitarians of the French Revolution. They lasted only a few months until Napoleon with his “whiff of grapeshot” stopped the guillotines. Carson stresses the contrasting vistas of the French and Russian revolutions. What Robespierre represented for a few months went on for some 27 years in the Russia of Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev.

Under the heading of “The Origin of Communism” Carson deals with dialectical materialism, the class struggle, the labor theory of value, and the idea of revolution itself. Then there is a diversion to explore utopianism, anarchism, and syndicalism. And there is a lengthy section on the history of Russia, its land and people. We get the full gruesome story of the murder of the Tsar and the whole Romanov family.

Lenin had his bursts of common sense. When starvation threatened in 1920 and 1921 he backtracked and proclaimed the New Economic Policy (NEP). Farmers had their own plots. There was a multiplicity of small businesses. With help from the United States, Russians began to eat again. But when Lenin died, Stalin, the clever infiltrator, decided that NEP-men would never be good Communists. After exiling the internationalist Trotsky, and taking over the slogan of “socialism in one country,” Stalin instituted his series of five-year plans. Rich farmers (meaning those who could perhaps hire one or two helpers) were pursued as “kulaks.” For the second time in 10 years Russia had a man-made famine on its hands as farming expertise disappeared.

News of the Ukraine famine was suppressed by Walter Duranty of The New York Times, who denied there was anything amiss in the Ukraine countryside. But two courageous and able correspondents, William Henry Chamberlin and Eugene Lyons, left Russia in order to write about the famine they had seen with their own eyes.

Carson thinks the murder of Kirov in Leningrad was connived at by Stalin, who needed reasons for his purges and the show trials that shocked the world. Carson mentions “four stages of terror.” His authority is Solzhenitsyn, who has made the concept of the Gulag Archipelago known to the West in his remarkable books.

Any ordinary writer would have broken off with the Soviet section of a jam-packed book and called it a day. But Carson has to deal with the whole international thrust of Communism, with its “two faces.” We learn about the creation of front organizations, the provoking of civil wars. There are sub-sections on Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and anarcho-syndicalism and “republicanism” in Spain. Finally, Carson has to tell us all about Fidel Castro, North Korea, and the whole Third World.

The danger in America, Carson says, comes from “secular humanism.” “From the perspective of the rise and spread of Communism in the Twentieth Century,” Carson writes, “secular humanism . . . is the undergirding doctrine of an international movement which has had as its object the conversion or conquest of the whole world.”

But the worst hasn’t happened. Gorbachev may not be our friend, but he obviously doesn’t want to go down in history as another Stalin.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.