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From the Gulag to the Killing Fields By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, June 05, 2006


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Frontpage Interview's guest today is Paul Hollander, an expert on anti-Americanism and the author of two masterpiece works on the psychology of the Left: Political Pilgrims and Anti-Americanism. He is the editor of a collection of essays by America's foremost scholars and thinkers, Understanding Anti-Americanism. He has now gathered together an unprecedented volume consisting of more than forty personal memoirs of Communist repression from dissidents across the world in the new book From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States.

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FP: Paul Hollander, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.

 

Hollander: Thank you Jamie.

FP: Tell us what motivated you to assemble this new collection.

 

Hollander: My motivation for putting this book together is quite straightforward and longstanding. I have been impressed (and dismayed) for many years, indeed decades, by the phenomenal and profound Western (esp. American) ignorance of communist systems in general and the deprivations they imposed on their people in particular.

I found especially noteworthy and puzzling the contrast between this ignorance (and the very limited interest) and the lively (and fully justified) preoccupation with the Holocaust. In the introduction to the book, I discussed at some length the differences and similarities between the Holocaust and the communist mass murders and tried to explain the different moral responses in the West.

I should also add here that in a sense the book originated in a 1994 article I wrote about the asymmetrical Western moral responses to these two major outrages of the past century.


More recently I also felt that this anthology may also offer some help for a better general understanding of the relationship between ideas(and ideals) actions, i.e. many forms of political violence and repression connected with the attempt to realize certain ideals, secular or religious, or secular-religious. Most recently this has been connected with Islamic terrorism and I also made some reference to that in the intro.


I decided to use for this anthology memoirs rather than statistics or social scientific discussions intending to capture the personal experiences and dimensions at the receiving end of this violence.

 

FP: One of the reasons why historical amnesia has been imposed on communist genocide is that the Left still clearly holds onto the dream of earthly redemption and to the faith that human blood can justifiably be shed to achieve it. Holocaust denial is always connected to the craving for the repetition of the Holocaust itself. Can you talk about this a bit?

 

Hollander: I would put it somewhat differently, though probably we mean the same thing. Yes, the left - or elements of the Left - find it difficult to admit that Marxism, even (or especially) in its purest forms is unworkable. The Communist mass murders are played down because they were performed in the service of these great, noble ideals. Hobsbawm is a good example of some of these attitudes; he knows full well the horrors and doesn’t deny them but still retained a lingering nostalgia for the good intentions they were supposedly associated with.


But on the other hand many on the Left deny that Marxism had anything to do with the nature of communist systems and if so, they could freely admit or discuss the political violence these systems engaged in. But they don’t.


I am not sure that those on the Left still believe in earthly redemption but they are nonetheless emotionally attracted to past attempts to accomplish this. The good intentions continue to matter a great deal, esp. when there is so much cynicism, scepticism, disillusionment in the contemporary world. (Americans in particular find this painful; this is a very idealistic culture of high expectations).


I am not sure if the Holocaust denial is connected to a craving to repeat it although it may be connected to some sympathy to (another) attempt to purify the world. This would of course never be acknowledged.
 
FP: Because leftists publicly deny that Marxism inevitably engenders Stalinism does not mean they do not, deep down, know it to be true and that they do not support it for exactly that reason. (It is a given, of course, that I am referring to the hard Left that has represented and made up the Left throughout the 20th century, not to the liberal Left that was marginalized within the movement at large).

 

I don’t think that there was once a Left that was motivated by earthly redemption and that now there is a Left -- that is still a "Left" -- that doesn’t believe in it. There would be no point for a Left unless there was the ingredient of the Marxist faith that held that certain parts of the human condition needed to be annihilated and a certain world of social justice built on its ashes. A person who accepts that we are flawed human beings who live in world that cannot be made perfect, and that the road toward perfect “social justice” automatically comes with a form of terror, is no longer a part of the Left as we know it. If he thinks he is, then he robs the word of its meaning and imposes historical amnesia on what the Left has always historically been and what it has perpetrated.

 

The Nazis who deny the Jewish Holocaust are always the ones who, in private, rub their hands in glee at the reality that it happened and are enthusiastic about how their denial may facilitate the possibility of another one. The leftists who deny the Gulag and all of its forms are the ones who have a vested interested in more gulags being perpetrated to build their vision of a future earthly paradise. We are just using different semantics here. The large-scale attempts to purify the world always entail the mass shedding of human blood, a procedure which has a label: Holocaust.

 

Hollander: I don’t think, and did not suggest, that the leftists deny the gulag (shorthand for communist violence). They are not as irrational as the Holocaust deniers. Rather, they overlook or deemphasize or minimize the gulag, or see it as flawed means to good ends.

 

Communist misdeeds are perfunctorily admitted but they don’t stimulate the same kind of moral indignation as other moral outrages closer to their heart (racism, sexism, capitalist exploitation etc).


In this last comment you speak only about the hard, or more dogmatic and radical left. But there is a more moderate/liberal left with a diminished appetite for the kind of utopia that requires so much repression and regimentation, people like the late Irving Howe or Galbraith or Todd Gitlin; social democrats, non-violent, romantic anti-capitalists. Some people learned something from history.


On the other hand, it is true that at times the more moderate left tolerated ("understood") the radicals (and their "rage") because they seemed more "authentic", "their heart in the right place"  -- as for example liberal academics in the 60s and 70s felt about the SDS/Weathermen types (or Black Panthers) and their misdeeds.    


It is also true -- but again this applies to a minority - (difficult to measure these things) that for some intellectuals on the (radical) left violence was attractive because it proved the seriousness of commitment (Sartre, Mailer, Castro groupies etc)

 

FP: Fair enough my friend. We are branching out into a dialogue that will have to take place in another forum. And I am not even necessarily in disagreement with you, but just expanding on our discussion.

 

Just for the sake of crystallizing one main point about the Left: suffice it to say that the Noam Chomskys and Ward Churchills of this world represent the Left as we know it, and they have malicious and destructive intent in their hearts, and their driving impulse is to venerate and submit to our adversarial totalitarian enemies.

 

To suggest that there are some liberal leftists out there who are not represented by characters such as these is to suggest a given, but within this context it suggests that these lib-leftists somehow once had political influence on the Left as a whole, which they didn’t, and in so doing, it robs the term “Left” of its meaning and imposes historical amnesia on what the Left, as a mass, believes and what it has perpetrated throughout its history.

 

But let's get back one track. Tell us in what way this new collection represents a landmark.
 

Hollander: The Anthology may be considered a "landmark" because there is nothing like it; nobody has before brought together such writings in one volume; moreover these writings represent experiences from every single communist system, extinct or surviving, from Albania to Vietnam. Many of the selections are also of considerable literary merit.

 

Also among the unique features of the volume is the 75 page introduction in which I attempted to systematically examine the distinctive features of communist repression and compare it with the far better known Nazi case.

 

FP: The personal accounts are truly powerful and also extremely traumatizing. I just finished the book and it just depresses your soul to try to digest the mass genocide and torture along with the vicious brutality and sadism inflicted on millions of human beings for the sake of an idea. It is an idea, as you point out, that many are still in love with.

 

The memoirs always center on the horrifying reality of torture to extract a confession. Prof. Hollander, why do you think it is so important for communists to get the confession of guilt – even when they know the guilt is imagined and not true?

 

Hollander: I think that the obsession with the confession had three sources. One was practical: since there was no proof whatsoever of the horrendous, fantastic crimes many were accused of, confession was the only proof and it was easy to extract it under physical and mental pressure. (Of course the confession of those who were subjected to the show trials was far more important and elaborate than those of the anonymous victims).


Second, the confessions, when publicized, were didactic, intended to convey some political lesson: e.g. that the Soviet Union (or some other communist state) was menaced by totally depraved, unscrupulous enemies; the confession also served the purpose of informing the public who the enemies were (sociologically speaking); who was allied with whom. Sometimes the accused were used to explain domestic problems like food shortages (sabotage).


The confessions also served the purpose to discredit particular individuals since they had to confess to general moral failings as well as to particular political acts (dishonesty, treacherous behaviour, greed, being subject to bribes, envy etc)


Third, and perhaps most important, that the confession – although coerced, and as such something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – proved the existence of a certain moral universe: the polarized notions of good and evil. The accused colourfully personified the latter, the accusers the former.


One final reason: the evil attitudes and deeds of the more important victims had to confess to provided further justification for terror.

 

FP: What distinctive features of communist violence can be crystallized from the accounts?

 

Hollander: The distinctive features of communist political violence are quite numerous, the most important being that it was "violence of higher purpose" (I considered this for the title of the book). People were killed or mistreated because they were in the way of realizing certain political, economic or social goals or programs, or they were thought to be in the way of these measures and policies.


Also distinctive, that much of the repression and regimentation occurred because of the attempted creation of the "new socialist man". Another important feature was that people were mistreated for the most part not for their actions or behavior, but because they belonged to certain categories which were considered suspect or potentially hostile. Much of the violence thus was prophylactic or preventative. But depending on changing policies anybody could become classified as "the enemy."

Other features:

a) the vast scope of repression was unanticipated since communist theoreticians assumed that their systems will be widely popular, hence the state can "wither away" as Lenin put it;  (unlike in the Holocaust most victims of communist violence perished because of living conditions in the labor camps or were shot; there were no gas chambers)

b) Integration of repression with economic goals; slave labor on a large scale; (these 2 features, a) and b) vastly increased the scope of the repression)

c) Control over population movements both within the countries concerned and across international borders;


d) Elaborate dehumanization and demonization of the potential victims through propaganda and enforced confessions;


e) Lip service paid to the "rehabilitation" of those imprisoned (some variety of what the Chinese called "thought reform"). But these efforts were no consistent or serious.

Of course this is just a very brief summary.

 

FP: In the end, the lesson of the Left's attempt to remold the human being is that we ultimately cannot change who and what we are – and that the effort to build paradise on earth leads to the creation of hell instead. Can you talk a bit about that?

 

Hollander: Precisely my conclusions. The kind of social engineering communist systems attempted are inherently impossible to realize, they are also unpopular and the attempted realization produces vast amounts of violence and coercion.

These systems were also rejected by most of their populations because they created a huge, persistent and readily discernible gap between ideals and realities; the notorious theory and practice gap. But certain aspects of the theory (Marxism) itself lent themselves to distortion and were wrongheaded: e.g. the idea that nationalizing the means of production will make the economy more productive AND help to create a sense of community and social solidarity. State control over the economy accomplished neither.

 

There were many unforeseen results of such policies.

Yes, human nature appears to have certain features which resist the kinds of regimentation these systems attempted. Most people, most of the time, are unwilling to surrender the private/personal to the public/political realm; they put higher value on their family and friends than on imposed, artificial political communities.

Again, a lot more can be said about all this and I have done so in the introduction.

 

FP: Why do I have a feeling that this text will not be required reading in academia?

 

Hollander: You may well be right about this mainly because little is being taught about communist systems in general. If they are not taught why would a text focusing on their misdeed be used? Many academics would be concerned that dwelling on these misdeeds would/could divert attention from the misdeeds of their own society, the U.S., and other capitalist systems.

FP: I am always terrified reading texts like this, and we have an obligation to do so, of course, to reach out to the victims, to support them, and to be loyal to the truth and to fight evil.

 

I will admit that when I put my feet in these victims’ shoes, I become very frightened and I wonder how I could have possibly survived what they survived. Would I have confessed right away just to avoid the horrifying tortures? Would I have tried to kill myself? Or would I have fought and endured the unspeakable sadism and brutality inflicted by the torturers?

 

I must say that a book like this reminds us of not only of the evil in life – and in humans (i.e. the sadistic torturers), but also of the heroism and courage and nobility that lurks in man. There are some incredible heroes in this volume that survived against all odds and, with tremendous stamina and courage, against all hope (to borrow the title of Armando Valladares’ memoir).

 

As you comment in your introduction, this evil experiment on humans also brought out the best in us, and what was also unexpected. And so while it is traumatizing and heart-wrenching to confront the evil of communism and the unspeakable pain it caused its victims, it is inspiring to see the beautiful virtues it brought out of man.

 

Can you talk about that a bit?

 

Hollander: I also thought about the matter of resisting torture and found it difficult to imagine how it could be withstood (not many succeeded).


As to what suffering brings out of human beings I don’t think that in most cases it brings out heroism and good qualities but sometimes it does. When people are reduced to concern with the basics of physical survival most of them have little emotional or physical energy left to act selflessly, kindly. But some do.

 

Of course very good conditions are not necessarily conducive to nurturing virtue either: people with a great deal of wealth, power, fame, comforts etc. often become more mired in selfishness and in self-centered notions of "self-realization" -- we have much of this in this society.


But there is also "noblese oblige" on the part of the rich (esp. the established rich, not the new rich).


It is very hard to know what conditions bring out the best or worst in people.


Most people need a certain level of stability, security and satisfaction of basic needs before they can rise to decent behavior.

 

FP: Very true. I’ll just say that I have in mind individuals such as Armando Valladares and Vladimir Bukovsky who could have avoided their terrible suffering if they had just recanted their belief in freedom and accepted what the regime wanted them to accept. But they chose unspeakable terror being perpetrated against them for the sake of their commitment to the right of human being to be free. What incredible human beings. Remarkable warriors, soldiers . . . heroes.

 

Paul Hollander, thank you for contributing this priceless volume for the sake of keeping the truth alive and to keep alive the memory of the millions of human beings  who lost their lives and suffered unimaginable pain because of the attempt to enforce human redemption on earth.

 

Hollander: Let me just say in conclusion that I am very pleased that I managed finally to put together this volume and get it published (after a long search for a publisher). I am far from certain what it will accomplish, how widely it will be read, but I felt strongly that such a volume had to be produced, perhaps for the sake of historical justice. As I also wrote in the introduction, one always hopes that more knowledge leads to better understanding and the latter might eventually make some difference to how people behave.

One final (and far from original point): I think that the main lesson of communist political violence and repression has been that good intentions can produce very bad results. Idealism is attractive but no guarantee of good results.


Of course one should not jump to the conclusion that all idealism is suspect and must lead to unspeakable horrors. The idealism associated with the communist misdeeds was not the only ingredient or precondition of these historic horrors, although a very important one.


Human lives and social systems can and should be improved but we must resist the tempting illusion, that human nature can be radically changed, that all scarcities and injustices can be eradicated, that that the many conflicts of human interest can be wiped out etc., etc.

 

FP: Thank you Prof. Hollander.

 

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Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.


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