Sunday, 15 April 2018

The House of Government and the relative nobility of communism

Robert Conquest, the poet and deeply anti-communist historian of the Soviet Union, thought that fascism was worse than communism. Asked why, he replied just "I feel it to be so". Perhaps the feeling is that communism was a noble cause that went wrong, whereas fascism never had anything noble about it. Anyway, reading The House of Government made me question that idea.

It is a huge, brilliant book about the inhabitants of one house in Moscow – a purpose-built creation designed to house the elite of the new regime, and inhabited by the Old Bolsheviks, who had made the revolution and fought the civil war against the Whites. The Old Bolsheviks certainly have something of the nobility of an old-time religion: they start the book under Tsarism, holding secret meetings by gaslight, or exiled to Siberia. And the book itself takes the communism-religion analogy very seriously, drawing comparisons from early Christianity, early Puritanism, and the Great Disappointment of the US Millerite sect.

But before admiring devotion to a cause, we need to know the cause's nature. An especial wickedness of communism, which it shared with fascism, was that it deliberately endorsed and encouraged hatred and cruelty against the enemy. For example, here is a passage from The Iron Flood, a civil war novel, in which the heroes take a Cossack town:

Note that this is not an underground or marginal text. It was a set text in schools until the end of the Soviet period. It is not atypical either. In the civil war, merciless killing of men, women and children was endorsed in reality as well as novels. To be merciless and brutal, since mercilessness and brutality were necessary, was a mark of moral strength and hardness. Stalin meant "man of steel". The Bolsheviks were the first people to favour the tough-looking leather jacket.

The catalyst for this evil was surely the brutality of the conflict, but it must also have had roots in Karl Marx's crisp analysis of conventional morality. Bourgeois morality was part of the bourgeois economic system: talk of human rights or humanist values was claptrap when most of humanity was enslaved. The only morality was to do whatever furthered the revolution. Then again, perhaps communism was simply of its time. The same worship of strength can be found in Kipling, say; expressed more subtly, in Nietzsche; later, in fascism. The result, in any case, was that Bolshevist communism became a death cult.

Some of the behaviour patterns are still with us. The bilious twitter monkeys of the extreme Left, for whom abuse and hatred are both tactics and habits, are more or less conscious followers of this Bolshevik tradition. Luckily, as of today they remain safely confined to the zoo.