All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1993

Learning From Experience

Why have so many so-called intellectuals fallen in love with Communism?

Professor Pongracic teaches economics at Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana.

As the press has widely reported recently, another “enthusiastic Communist from [the United States] who disappeared without a trace in the late 1940s,”[1]has been found. He is living in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) and freely admits that he squandered his life. His confession: “I made a tremendous mistake. Knowing what I do now, it was a tremendous mistake to have done what I did.”

What did he do? Believing that Communism was the salvation of the human race, Joel Barr went first to Czechoslovakia, married a Czech woman, and, when in 1956 Nikita S. Khrushchev invited him and another American, Alfred Sarant, to start their own microelectronics institute, moved to the Soviet Union, changed his name to Josif Veniaminovich Berg, designed the first Soviet computer, and then helped to build the first Soviet radar-guided anti-aircraft gun. He confesses his hope at the time was that by helping Communism thrive it would one day spread to America.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and disclosed the atrocities of Stalin’s purges, Mr. Barr all but overnight lost his faith in Communism. Wasting “no time mourning the death of the theory that he had served most of his adult life,” he became a proponent of the American Revolution. He now believes that “history will show that the Russian Revolution was a tremendous mistake. It was a step backward for mankind.”

His story is, to say the least, educational. Although he has been neither the first nor, unfortunately, the last of the American intellectuals whose unrealized dreams about a terrestrial paradise made them aware that they had wasted their lives “building socialism,” not many of them have been ready to admit their mistake. And no wonder. Intellectuals, according to Webster’s dictionary, are persons “able to understand,” persons “of superior intellect.” To admit to having been fooled by such a devious system is not easy for someone who is supposed to make a living using “superior intellect.”

Why, then, have so many of the so-called intellectuals repeated this mistake of falling in love with Communism?

The reasons abound. First, too many of them suffer from the materialistic illusion that man can live by bread alone. They seek a world of maximum production, a world without poverty, a world of equal redistribution of Earth’s wealth. Since the “anarchy” of a market economy cannot achieve this goal, a deliberately guided economy is needed. Once reached, the material abundance should make everybody not only happy and fulfilled but even more willing to work for the common good.

On the other side of the spectrum we find those desperate to find a new god. Declaring Christianity dead, they are willing to put their faith in charismatic figures such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, or Pol Pot. Wanting their minds liberated from the laws of God, they immerse themselves in Dialectical Materialism as the only possible way to achieve the ideal of the brotherhood of man. The means to achieve this are a complete abolition of property, the control of production, and the medium of exchange.

Finally, most of them abandon the market economy because it is not likely to provide them with the wealth or power they seek. Not catering to the tastes of the masses, whom they mostly despise, and unwilling to involve themselves in the work of representative politics, which they also despise, they long for a Grand Plan which would recognize their talents immediately and call them into action. Socialism, in all its variants, offers them rank among the elite, among the class of social engineers, who possess a degree of power that not only secures a comfortable life but also allows them to manipulate other people’s lives according to their omniscient wisdom. As Eric Hoffer reminded us in his book The Temper of Our Time, “the intellectual who as a ‘man of words’ should be a master in the art of persuasion refuses to practice the art once he is in power. He wants not to persuade but to command.”

When approached with empirical proof that their wish systems necessarily result in total disaster, these intellectuals are notorious for rejecting the notion.[2]That such a system could kill or starve millions of people, send thousands of dissenters to lunatic asylums, and use psychiatry in general as a tool of political punishment, or pack whole villages to concentration camps situated in areas where survival was all but impossible, has often been denied in a blind rage. Such intellectuals are even less willing to accept that their system rapidly deteriorates into moral and monetary corruption, with the nomenklatura indulging itself in the most conspicuous consumption imaginable.

Joel Barr now “spends his time thinking up ways to convince his still radical American friends that Marxist-Leninist theory is fatally flawed.” The question is, why should his friends believe him?

At the time he decided to leave the United States, there were already people who had seen the future and did not like it. Their books, attempting to warn people like him about the real nature of Communism, were rejected as reactionary. Would their warnings have changed his mind? Would reading these books have made him stay in America? Would they have saved him from, in his words, committing “a tremendous mistake”? There is no way of knowing. Yet their message was clear and unmistakable.

In 1946, a high Soviet official—who had defected in 1944 as a member of the Soviet Purchasing Commission in Washington—published a book, I Chose Freedom.[3]In almost 500 pages, Victor Kravchenko described in painful detail the sufferings of both the common people and Party officials by the hand of a lunatic dictator. His chilling stories about “failure and waste” in industry, about the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian peasants, about the psychological destruction of 99 percent of the Soviet population, about his own encounter with death in a Gulag, must be read to comprehend the brutality of the system it describes.

(When accused of lying and being a Western spy, Kravchenko sued Les Lettres Françaises, a Communist literary weekly published in Paris. After bringing hundreds of witnesses to Paris to confirm his story, he won the trial. As Ludmilla Thorne explained in the introduction to the 1989 Transaction edition of Kravchenko’s second book, I Chose Justice,[4]first published in 1950, all “witnesses were primarily simple men and women, some of whom were illiterate. They described how they had been dragged out of their homes, all their possessions taken away by local Party officials. Children had often been thrown screaming onto the snow like discarded ragged dolls. Families had been transported in cattle cars like human cargo, sometimes for ten or twelve days, to collective farms or labor camps. The corpses of those who died had been thrown off the trains whenever they stopped, and sometimes the death trains did not stop for days.” Bitterly she adds later, “The heartlessness of such events is usually lost in scholarly journals and books written by contemporary Sovietologists.”)

Several pages of Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, were dedicated to American intellectuals. He was “shocked” when he realized that “Stalin’s grip on the American mind . . . was almost as firm as his grip on the Russian mind.” He describes how he had “to listen in frustrated silence” while American intellectuals spent hours praising Stalin’s achievements. His endeavors to explain that this “tinselly picture of a happy and successful ‘socialist’ nation [was] imposed upon [the American] mind . . . by the best propaganda machine in all history” were useless. He found it “truly extraordinary” that “the Communist reality—like slave labour, police dictatorship, the massive periodic purges, the fantastically low standard of living, the great famine of 1932-33, the horrors of collectivization, the state organized child labor—seemed to have completely escaped American attention.” Kravchenko relates that when he dared to mention such things to American intellectuals, they usually “looked at me incredulously and some even hastened to enter cocksure denials.” Those who already knew about these atrocities, readily tolerated them “as a kind of interlude before paradise is ushered in.”

Kravchenko thus tried to warn “the great mass of Americans” that their so-called intellectuals could be divided broadly into two groups: one that was totally ignorant of the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime, including many alleged “experts on Soviet Russia,” and another that accepted “lying about Russia [as] a method of class warfare: their shortcut to power.” Kravchenko describes his final disappointment when he realized that he was “denounced and ridiculed by precisely those warm-hearted and high minded foreigners on whose understanding and support I had counted.”


The “God that Failed”

Kravchenko could have been dismissed by the Joel Barrs of that time as a marginal case—a Communist official who had not been promoted quickly enough to satisfy his ego. But there were others. In The God That Failed,[5]for example, six famous writers—two Americans, an Italian, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German—decided to put together some of their previous writings in which they described the experiences which led to their disillusionment with the Soviet system. As the publisher of the book put it: “They found out—in pain and disgust—that they were wrong; that the words ‘brotherhood’ and ‘freedom’ are merely catchwords to Communists; that ‘truth’ is whatever the Party says it is at the moment; that the very things they had joined the Party for were most endangered by the Party itself.”

They had at first willfully accepted the belief that Marxism had “exploded liberal fallacies” about capitalism as a system of automatic progress, as an economic system without booms and slumps, as a just system where racial discrimination and other injustices are unknown. Consequently, watching their old world fall apart, such intellectuals, in desperation, turned to Marxism. “Christianity is bankrupt,” concluded André Gide, so fellow travelers turned to “a creed which seemed to provide a complete and final answer to the problems of both social and racial injustice.”

Soon, however, they were to discover that their god was devouring his own children. They found out that some of their friends, totally dedicated Communists, had perished in the labor camps, were shot by firing squads, or simply vanished without a trace. They found, in Arthur Koestler’s words, that “At no time and in no country have more revolutionaries been killed and reduced to slavery than in Soviet Russia.” But, more “disheartening than the barbarities committed by the simple in spirit,” i.e., Russian Communists, was “the spectacle of [those] dialectical tight-rope acts of self-deception, performed by men of good will and intelligence,” namely Western intellectuals.

Louis Fischer’s moment of revelation came with the Soviet-Nazi pact. He realized that “Totalitarians of all feathers understand each other.” For a long time he had been willing to accept a “temporary suspension of freedom [which would] enable the Soviet regime to make rapid economic strides.” Finally, however, he realized that “On the backs of the nationalized proletariat and the nationalized peasantry, with the cowed, kowtowing bureaucracy and intelligentsia crying ‘Bravo,’ Stalin has built a supernationalistic, imperialistic, state-capitalistic, militaristic system in which he is, and his successor will be, the Supreme Slave Master.”

André Gide’s story was similar. Traveling first to Communist Russia and then to Fascist Italy in the 1930s, he had discovered the same slogans on the walls in both countries: Believe, obey, and fight. It had suddenly dawned on him that “The Communist spirit has ceased being in opposition to the Fascist spirit or even differentiating itself from it.” After some more eye- opening experiences, he decided to warn “the workers outside the Soviet Union . . . that they have been bamboozled and led astray by the Communist Party, just as the Russian workers were duped before them . . . . [I]n Marxian doctrine there is no such thing as truth—at least not in any absolute sense—there is only relative truth.” The man who found Christianity bankrupt had to admit that “Russia . . . has failed to become a god and she will never now arise from the fires of the Soviet ordeal.”

And then there was Max Eastman, a poet, philosopher, journalist, translator. Right before the Russian Revolution he came to the conclusion that socialism was the only way to “make all men as free to live and realize the world as it is possible for them to be.” He dreamed that by socializing the means of production the socialist could “extend democracy from politics into economics.” By “a process of thought rather than feeling,” Eastman pronounced Marxism a “large-scale social-scientific experiment,” the only one capable of producing “a society without distinction of caste, class, race, money-power—without exploitation, without the ‘wage system.’”[6]

That was in 1916. Then, in the 1920s, he visited the Soviet Union. First he realized that “Instead of liberating the mind of man, the Bolshevik Revolution locked it into a state’s prison tighter than ever before. No flight of thought was conceivable, no poetic promenade even, no sneak through the doors or peep out of a window in this pre-Darwinism dungeon called Dialectic Materialism. No one in the Western world has any idea of the degree to which Soviet minds are closed and sealed tight against any idea but the premises and conclusions of this antique system of wishful thinking.”

Eastman found the economy abysmal. He concluded that” the whole idea of extending freedom, or justice, or equality, or any other civilized value, to the lower classes through common ownership of the means of production was a delusive dream, a bubble that had taken over a century to burst.” He realized that man has “a choice between two and only two business systems . . . . We can choose a system in which the amount and kind of goods produced is determined by the impersonal mechanism of the market, issuing its decrees in the form of fluctuating prices, or we can choose a system in which this is determined by command issuing from a personal authority backed by armed force” (italics in original). The former is “the spontaneous way of producing wealth with elaborate machinery and a high division of labor.” The latter is a “return to barbarism.”

Finally, Eastman quoted Arthur Koestler, who said that the Western intellectuals of socialist persuasion were “men of good will with strong frustrations and feeble brains, the wishful thinkers and idealistic moral cowards, the fellow-travelers of the death-train.” He devised a special name for them “the champions of a lawyer-manager-politician-intellectual revolution.”


Lessons from Mises and Jewkes

If all of this was not enough to open Joel Barr’s eyes, and if he wanted an opinion from a trained economist, he could have chosen between the Austrian Ludwig von Mises (whose Socialism was first published in English in 1936) and the English economist John Jewkes (whose Ordeal by Planning was published in America in 1948). In Socialism he could have discovered why a socialist economy is an impossibility. Not only would the omnipotent planners be incapable of planning, asserted Mises, they would not even know where to begin to look for the meaningful data. Because the pricing system was nonexistent, planners would never know where and why more capital is needed nor which needs of the population should be satisfied first and which later. With no profit and loss system, they would never know whether or not their endeavors were successful.[7]

In Jewkes’ work, Joel Barr could have learned that “economic confusion” is “the breeding- ground of totalitarian ideas.” The lack of understanding of the pricing system is the main factor pointing socialism in the direction of inevitable disaster. “More converts are brought to the planning fold through ignorance of the price system than through any other cause,” warned Jewkes, because “those who cannot, or will not, acquaint themselves with the principles of this system have no clue through which to reach an understanding of the intricate organization operating around them. Tortured and bemused by the fear of the unknown, they finally come to believe that everything in the free economy is subject to ‘the blind ravages of chance’; that what is produced, what work each man pursues, what price is fixed for commodities are isolated ad hoc decisions. Into this intellectual vacuum the idea of a planned economy rushes with all the force of a gospel of salvation.”[8]

There is no way of knowing whether or not Joel Barr had read any or all of these books. Nor can we know what his reaction was or would have been. But since he had to spend more than forty years in the Soviet Union to have his eyes opened, we can suspect that little would have changed. Now he is warning “his still-radical American friends” but, again, why should they believe him? He obviously did not believe others who wanted to warn him.

The intellectuals’ unwillingness to change their beliefs has been perfectly illustrated recently. In 1990, Robert Heilbroner wrote in The New Yorker[9]that “the Russian collapse . . . came as a shock.” It was shocking to him “that the system deteriorated to a point far beyond the worst economic crisis ever experienced by capitalism,” and it was even more shocking “that the villain in this deterioration was the central planning system itself.” The system “produced grotesque misallocation of efforts,” the planners had “to keep track of . . . 24 million prices,” while the produce “often rot[ted] in warehouses.” He was also shocked when he found out that “the Soviet Union [had become] the first industrially developed country in history to suffer a prolonged fall in average life expectancy during peacetime.”

Heilbroner relates more shocking news. Yet, at the end of his article, he actually develops a most curious defense of socialism and a planned economy. To make “our economic peace with the demands of the environment,” to cope with “the ecological burden that economic growth is placing on the environment,” the “realization that socialism [as] a social order designed to ward off economic disaster . . .” is unavoidable. In the name “of our grandchildren . . . our great- grandchildren or great-great-grand-children,” he wants us to believe that a planned economy “is the direction in which humanity will have to travel . . .” (One wonders if he ever visited parts of the Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, or Russia to see what a planned economy does to the environment.)

In a recent interview,[10]Robert Heilbroner categorically reaffirms that he has not “turned my back on this long honorable tradition of democratic socialism.” Stating that although “The system [in the former Soviet Union] fell down for reasons we don’t entirely understand,” he reminds the reader that the system “was very successful in the early days. Russia was a very poor country, but the Russian Revolution under the leadership of Lenin did somehow manage to marshal its resources in a way that had not been previously possible.” (Mr. Heilbroner need only read Kravchenko to demolish this persistent myth about pre-revolutionary Russia. Russia was not “a very poor country.” It became “a very poor country” only after the Revolution.) At the end of this rather long conversation (in which he also warns Americans not to pay too much attention to budget deficits and public debt in general), Heilbroner states that those who believe in capitalism must always remember that “capitalism, in addition to being a fantastic source of growth, is also a fantastic originator of problems.”

Joel Barr must understand that these days—with the new President talking about more active government, and most of his friends and advisers defending something euphemistically called industrial policy, managed markets, managed trade, managed exports and imports—the American Left is euphoric again. His “radical American friends” are equally as willing to listen to him as he was willing to listen to a Hayek, a Kravchenko, a Gide, and others in the 1940s. Their old dream, what Hayek called “a despotism exercised by a thoroughly conscientious and honest bureaucracy,” is within reach again.[11]The 1960s radicals are now teaching economics, political science, law, literature, and history at American universities, hiding their bankrupt philosophies behind the political correctness craze, deconstructionism, cultural studies, and dreaming up ways to construct, very soon, their version of perfect community.[12]The Joel Barrs are pushed into the dustbin of history.

Besides, the American Left is well aware that libraries are replete with books describing what has been happening for decades not only in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, and other Communist countries, but also in Sweden, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, and other countries which have tried “soft” socialism. They couldn’t care less; they simply believe that those old socialists, Communists, and Marxists were too stupid, too unsophisticated to succeed. According to their new creed, socialism and a planned economy are possible. Period. It only takes the right kinds of intellectuals to make it work.

As George Orwell once put it, “You have to belong to intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man would be such a fool.” Unfortunately for the rest of us, the new intelligentsia, the new enthusiastic reformers of the new administration, will have to learn from experience, too. No doubt forty years from now one of them will complain about having made “a tremendous mistake.” At that time America may look, more or less, like today’s Russia.

  1.   Elizabeth Shogren, “U.S. whiz regrets helping Soviet defense industry,” Los Angeles Times, reprinted in The Indianapolis Star, October 25, 1992.
  2.   The best example is Herman Finer’s The Road to Reaction (Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1945), an answer to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, in which Hayek tried to warn “the socialists of all parties” that they “misconceived the nature of [their] movements” and that their “enthusiasm for the new kind of rationally constructed society” can bring nothing but “results most distasteful to many of its advocates.”
  3.   All quotations are from the Transaction Publishers (New Brunswick, U.S.A., and Oxford, U.K.), 1989 edition.
  4.   Republished by Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (U.S.A.), and Oxford (U.K.), 1989.
  5.   Bantam Books, 1959. Original Harper edition was published in January 1950.
  6.   All quotations are from Reflections on the Future of Socialism, Viewpoint Books, 1955. Although published too late for Mr. Barr to read before his defection, it is obvious that Mr. Eastman was simply repeating in this work his thoughts that he had already formed in his previous books and articles published in the 1930s and 1940s.
  7.   Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, An Economic and Sociological Analysis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936).
  8.   John Jewkes, Ordeal by Planning (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1948).
  9.   Robert Heilbroner, “After Communism,” The New Yorker, September 10, 1990.
  10.   Classrooms & Lunchrooms, A Journal for Teachers of Economics, Prentice-Hall, Fall/Winter 1992-93.
  11.   Kevin Pritchett, in “Reading Laura Tyson” (The Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1992), shows Ms. Tyson, the chairman of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, as one professing a strong belief in government intervention. He quotes her 1990 article “Why a National Competitiveness Policy is Needed”: “Simply put, certain industries may be more important than others . . . and government policy to promote or protect them can improve welfare.” Later she adds that it is “better to err” in the direction of protectionism than away from it. Although Mr. Pritchert does not say it, one must be aware that promoting and protecting “strategic” industries has become the latest euphemism for a planned economy in America. He does emphasize that every time Ms. Tyson “analyzes communist economies on their own terms, she partakes of the fiction that communism worked.”
  12.   Roger Kimball reports that at the 1992 Modern Language Association of America convention its president, after nostalgically recalling the 1960s, expressed his hopes that “the recent Democratic victory [is] a signal that a 1960s-style radicalism will be coming back with a vengeance.” Before that he emphasized that “teachers of literature should subordinate literary concerns to the task of fostering radical political activism” (“’Heterotextuality’ and Other Literary Matters,” The Wall Street Journal, December 31, 1992).

  • Ivan Pongracic Jr. is an associate professor of economics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William E. Hibbs/Ludwig von Mises Chair in Economics. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network