The Atlantic Monthly | December 2003
IN JANUARY of this year the late Michael Kelly, who was a Washington Post columnist as well as the editor-at-large of this magazine, decried in the Post the fact that antiwar marches in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco were sponsored by an organization, called International ANSWER, that is "a front group for the communist Workers World Party," which is, "literally, a Stalinist organization." As he was sometimes known to do, Kelly worked up a bit of dudgeon: "The left marches with those who would maintain in power the leading oppressors of humanity in the world."
Shortly afterward the columnist and essayist Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation, advised him to calm down. "Kelly really should get out of the house more," she said. If he had attended the Washington march, as she did, he would have seen what a diverse and positive affair it was. She conceded that ANSWER was a "weird pseudomarxist sect," and she acknowledged its "off-key Stalinism and refusal to condemn Saddam Hussein," but she argued against taking any of that too seriously.
It always seemed to me that ANSWER spoke only for itself, that not many people were listening, and that if war was an unpopular plan, the movement against it would grow way beyond the capacity of ANSWER to control it or lead it. In fact, ANSWER may have unintentionally spurred the rest of us to get busy and come up with alternatives like United for Peace and Justice or the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.
Let me ask you, please, to go back and reread that paragraph, but this time make one change throughout: substitute the words "the American Nazi Party" for ANSWER. Or, if you prefer, substitute "the KKK." Notice how utterly out of place the author's insouciance suddenly seems. It is inconceivable that any self-respecting American intellectual would call a march sponsored by Nazis or Klansmen a worthy event. Yet when it comes to communists—well, what's the big deal?
Around the time of the Kelly-Pollitt exchange I attended a lecture in Washington that I can only describe as a consciousness-raising. It was given by Alan Charles Kors, a historian (of European intellectual history) at the University of Pennsylvania. For some years I've admired Kors's work opposing speech codes on university campuses, so I was drawn more by the speaker than by the subject—"Can there be an 'after socialism'?" I left feeling chastened.
Kors said this: "The West accepts an epochal, monstrous, unforgivable double standard. We rehearse the crimes of Nazism almost daily; we teach them to our children as ultimate historical and moral lessons; and we bear witness to every victim. We are, with so few exceptions, almost silent on the crimes of communism. So the bodies lie among us, unnoticed, everywhere." And so many bodies! Not six million but 60 million, or 100 million—in any case scores and scores of millions. Too many ever to number.
In her recent book, Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum notes that Russia has no national museum or monument or place of mourning devoted to the crimes of communism. There have been "no public truth-telling sessions in Russia, no parliamentary hearings, no official investigations of any kind into the murders or the massacres or the camps of the USSR." In December of 2001, ten years after the Soviet Union dissolved, "thirteen of the fifteen former Soviet republics were run by former communists, as were many of the former satellite states."
Hoping to do better, in 1993 Congress and President Bill Clinton authorized the construction, on public land but with private funds, of a national memorial to honor the victims of communism. The act cited "the deaths of over 100,000,000 victims in an unprecedented imperial communist holocaust," and resolved that "the sacrifices of these victims should be permanently memorialized so that never again will nations and peoples allow so evil a tyranny to terrorize the world." The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation then set out to raise $100 million, or a dollar per victim. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum cost $168 million, so $100 million seemed reasonable.
Ten years later the project has scaled back its target to $450,000, which the foundation's president and CEO—a retired diplomat and consultant named Jay Katzen, himself working without pay—told me he expects to have raised by the end of this year. That will cover a memorial near (not on) the National Mall, in Washington, and an online museum. Original plans had called for a bricks-and-mortar museum and archive, but they will have to wait. "For a lot of people," Katzen said, "this does not have the immediacy, the sensitivity, that the Holocaust, for good reasons, has."
Well, the Holocaust museum was not dedicated until almost fifty years after the Holocaust. Perhaps these things take time. Perhaps communism is still too close to be seen in perspective. Perhaps this and perhaps that. The fact remains: communism, not Nazism or racism or whatever other ism you please, is the deadliest fantasy in human history, and even Americans, for all our struggles against it, have not yet looked it full in the face.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has a Web site, for those who are interested in learning or helping (www.victimsofcommunism.org). There are, I think, at least three reasons to hope that the project succeeds. A memorial in Washington would honor the dead. It would commemorate the longest and possibly the hardest geo-political struggle that the United States has ever undertaken. Not least, it might bring closer the time when activists will be ashamed to march under communist sponsorship, and when writers will be ashamed to make excuses for them.