All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1998

Murderous Nostalgia

True Believers in Communism Remain

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

Among America’s more significant actors and singers was Paul Robeson, born a century ago. His centennial is being celebrated with film retrospectives, museum showings, and book reissues.

Robeson, an impressive talent who struggled against pervasive racism, had a less presentable side: he was an avowed communist. He promoted leftist causes in the United States, frequently visited the Soviet Union, and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952.

Anyone can make a mistake, but Robeson knew what he was doing. In 1949 he met in Moscow with his friend Itzik Feffer, a Yiddish author who warned of the start of Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges. When Robeson returned home, he told reporters that “I heard no word about” anti-Semitism. He later accepted the Stalin Peace Prize despite Feffer’s murder at the hands of the regime.

It is impossible to know how Robeson, who died in 1976, would have reacted to the collapse of communism. But true believers remain. Sunset Hall in Los Angeles, a small apartment home for the aged begun 75 years ago by Unitarians, could provide the plot for a terrible sitcom. Filled with unrepentant communists and socialists, Sunset Hall sports a picture of Robeson, bust of Vladimir Lenin, and books on Marxism, Mao Zedong, and Leon Trotsky. There is also literature on the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Soviet atomic spies in the United States who were executed early in the Cold War.

Sunset’s residents demonstrate on behalf of janitors’ pay, lobby for Social Security, endorse national health insurance, circulate petitions over Sunset Hall’s dismissal of an employee, object to the purchase of tablecloths as wasteful, and collectively decide what food is to be served. But they don’t just want more government in a liberal democracy. They pine for the good ol’ days of communism—the real thing.

At age eight Glady Foreman, now 90, was proclaimed a “little socialist” by her father. She has written a book—as yet mercifully unpublished—titled “How Adam and Eve Lost Their Social Security.” Says Foreman: “Socialism, crushed to the earth, will rise again.”

Jacob Darnov, a messenger in the Bolshevik army decades ago, expresses his continuing admiration for Lenin. “He’s the greatest politician we ever had in this world.”

Wayne Friedlander, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society who once ran Sunset Hall, says he owes the residents a debt. They “are the giants,” he explains.

In one sense, he’s right. These people are “giants.” Giant fools. Lest that seem harsh, what else can one say about people who promoted—and continue to defend—the most murderous philosophy ever to disgrace human history? To back the communists in 1917 was an understandable, if tragic, mistake. But the twentieth century has demonstrated that the philosophy is inherently totalitarian and its implementation is inherently destructive and violent. Everywhere and every time, the experience has resulted in a charnel house. To support communism still, despite decades of mass murder, is inexplicable.

In his book, Death by Government, University of Hawaii professor R. J. Rummel catalogues the catastrophic record of the regimes so beloved by Sunset Hall residents. The Soviet Union, figures Rummel, killed somewhere between 28 million and 127 million people. His best estimate is 62 million. Even those who believe that Rummel’s figures are exaggerated still offer mind-numbing figures—20 million, according to French scholar Stephane Courtois’s Black Book of Communism.

Rummel figures that the second most murderous regime, also surpassing the Nazis, was that of Mao Zedong. Rummel estimates that the communist Chinese killed somewhere between six million and 102 million people—most likely about 35 million. Courtois actually puts Mao Zedong in first place, with between 45 million and 72 million dead. Rummel and Courtois also offer estimates for other great communist killers. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, wiped out an estimated two million to 2.3 million people; the Vietnamese murdered 1 million to 1.7 million, while the North Korean regime killed 1.7 million to two million.

There’s more. Communist Poland slaughtered 1.6 million (through extensive ethnic cleansing after World War II). At about the same time, Yugoslavia killed around 1.1 million. African governments have accounted for 1.7 million.

Then there were the many lesser communist tyrannies that dotted Asia and Eastern Europe. In some of those states the dead numbered “only” in the hundreds of thousands. In a few, “merely” tens of thousands—truly representing the velvet glove of communism. But Glady Foreman still hopes that socialism “will rise again.”

It is astounding enough that true believers remain. What could prompt the New York Times to put a story about Sunset Hall on its front page, however? Observes syndicated columnist Michael Kelly, “If a Times reporter found a brave little band of aging Nazis, who kept a bust of Hitler in the living room and who declared that fascism would rise again, and wrote this up cute—well, this simply could never happen.” He’s right, even though there is no difference in the moral culpability of the true believers of left and right.

Indeed, the ongoing effort to rehabilitate former communists suffers the same myopia. There are, for instance, the Rosenbergs. A number of leftists long proclaimed the Rosenbergs’ innocence. Unfortunately for the true believers, Soviet archives indicate that the husband-and-wife team were, yes, spies. The long campaign conducted on behalf of Alger Hiss, a Soviet spy convicted of perjury after serving in the State Department, also ground to an ignominious close with overwhelming evidence of his guilt.

Then there are those who were blacklisted by Hollywood during the Cold War. Many did suffer, and suffer unfairly. But private sanction is very different from public prosecution. The national security state committed excesses; the refusal of some studios to hire apparent communists was something quite different. Indeed, those who laud the blacklisted writers often act as if being denied public credit for one’s script, a common result of blacklisting, was akin to being sent to the Gulag—as were tens of millions by the rulers so beloved by those who were blacklisted.

This is the central issue. As the Washington Post‘s Stephen Rosenfeld points out, “What is missing from the discussion is an evaluation of the substance of the political views many of the movie people had.” Those blacklisted were supporting a monstrous tyranny, one that oppressed, slaughtered, and destroyed at will. That someone would refuse to hire them is as unsurprising as, say, refusing to hire a professing Nazi. The real victims were the tens of millions gunned down by tyrants.

The twentieth century, filled with so much horror, is mercifully coming to an end. While we may choose to forgive those who supported the murderous totalitarians who wreaked human devastation, we should never forget. However charming, talented, or even cute they now may seem to be, their hands remain covered with blood.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.