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The collapse of communism in 1989 was one of the greatest events of human history—one of the most sudden, unexpected, dramatic, and utterly transformative. We are too close to it to be certain how to read it. Yet one characteristic of communism proved to be decisive—its particular form of atheism, and the effect of this atheism upon the morale of the people and upon their economic performance.

For seventy-two years, communism in Russia waged a silent war against the human soul. Sometimes screams were heard from torture chambers deep in prisons and in detention centers, but mostly the war was fought with ideas and incessant public propaganda. Below the surface, it eroded foundations. Out of sight, it taught people to have a low opinion of themselves, as if they were incapable of nobility of soul. It ridiculed the soul’s capacity for discernment and for truth. Year after year, the silent artillery of communism leveled the inner landscapes of the soul.

A more secular way to speak of these things is to say that communism set out to destroy human capital. It set out, for instance, to eradicate centuries of learning, habits, cultures—to erase “bourgeois culture,” to salt it and plow it under with lies, demonstrations, propaganda. In doing so it destroyed enterprise, investment, innovation, even the ability to distinguish between profit and loss. It wounded the habits of honesty and trust, self-reliance and fidelity to one’s word. More deeply still, it dulled the most distinctive human mark: the soul’s primordial endowment of creativity, its sense of personal responsibility, its knowledge of itself as a subject.

The denial of the dignity of the individual, the reduction of the human being to merely material elements, erases our awareness of ourselves as persons who reflect and who choose, who launch new and creative actions into history, and who accept responsibility for our actions. Unlike a horse or a cow, a human being is an acting person, an active agent—inquiring and understanding, deliberating, judging, deciding. In precisely these ways, a human is made in the image of God.

Communism aimed to objectify everything and everybody. Its fundamental premise was materialism. Human beings are meat. Animated for a time, perhaps, but essentially no more than a sachetto of chemicals. Instruments. Means. The “dialectical” part of “dialectical materialism” belonged to a dynamic class position of “the proletariat.” The “materialist” part belonged to the people. The individual should expect to be expended, sacrificed, used up, like a thing.

Sacrificed—in this last respect, communism traded on the symbolism of Judaism and Christianity: the expectation of a New Jerusalem and the sacrifice of self for others. Communism’s materialistic theory, in and of itself, had no such resonance. Mere things do not make sacrifices for noble purposes or consider sacrifice a noble act. Thus, communism’s deepest sentiments were borrowed.

It is well known that belief in God can lead to torture, as in the awful scrutinies of heresy tribunals. It is less well known that atheism of a particular kind also leads to torture. The two routes to torture are quite different. The temptation of believers comes from moral arrogance or its mirror image, as in the case of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who was moved to torture by “pity,” a foolish belief that most people are not as wise as he, so that it was his “duty” to keep them from liberty. This route begins in moral debility. With atheists of the Communist kind it is quite different. Here torture flows from its fundamental premises about the human being. No human has any worth apart from contributing to the Cause—to the Dialectic, to the triumph of the Party (the Vanguard of History, the Custodian of human fate). If a man will not contribute willingly to History or (it comes to the same thing) the Collective Will of the Party, he is without value and may be disposed of—indeed, is a threat to the Party, and should be disposed of.

Communist atheism denies any transcendent dimension to being, any call to which humans must freely respond, any standard of truth, evidence, moral integrity, and goodness by which humans are every moment being judged. For the Communist, all is nothingness except the Dialectic of History, before which and in whose name he prostrates himself. The Communist borrows from Christianity and Judaism a comfort, viz., that his prostration places him on the side of justice and compassion. Yet his comfort is unwarranted because it rests on ideas in which his premises forbid him to believe. For the Communist has only one moral principle: the Collective Will of the Party. All else can be done in that name: murder, torture, imprison, exterminate, assassinate. No other moral question can be scientifically raised. There is in man no internal source of dignity. Personal liberty and personal responsibility cannot be honored in theory, although of course they continued to live on among individuals. In theory, these realities are dismissed as bourgeois affectations. The Communist’s moral comforts are stolen from elsewhere.

Paradoxically, however, the Communist system of imprisonment, torture, and public confession constituted, despite itself, a via negativa that led a great many of its victims to God, and to a fresh sense of being an individual who possesses dignity. For under torture they discovered evidence for the presence of God at the core of their own being. The prison literature of our time is full of such instances.

The typical pattern, if I am not mistaken, went something like this. The KGB handbooks listed more than twenty different degrees of torture, more or less scientifically studied and refined. At some point in the proceedings, the torturer would tell his victim that there is no point in resisting, so why put everybody through the pain? “No one will ever know what happens here. It has no significance. Neither resistance nor confession, really, will affect the outcome of History. Just be pragmatic. Tell me what I wish, write what I request, and do it sooner rather than later. Why not? Bourgeois prejudices? You are too intelligent for that. No one is ever going to know what you or I do here. It will be locked up in files with millions of other files, and a thousand years from now when Socialism is truly consolidated, people will never even notice. Consider yourself a forgotten man. Be practical. There is no such thing as truth. It is only a matter of making a decision. It is a matter of will. Write down what you know is fact. I will even help you. The sooner I can go home the better for me—and for you. It is a matter of will. Be practical.”

And then the light would go on in the victim’s head: My torturer is telling me that he has all the power. But he is actually confessing something else. There is something he wants from me that he does not have. So he does not have all the power. What he needs is this: that I should conform. He needs my will. He needs my denial that there is any such thing as truth. Only then will his philosophy be confirmed.

As long as I remain faithful to my own intellect and will, as long as I refuse to be complicit in his lie, then my existence unsettles him. I will not tell a lie. As long as I can hold out for that principle, then my existence shows him that his philosophy is false.

Of course, he will overpower me. He can break me with pain. He can take away my mind and my liberty with drugs. But the real power in this relationship is mine. He cannot get what he wants unless I freely give it to him. It is not enough for him to force me, to destroy me—that would be only an instant’s work. I am totally in his power—except for the sanctuary of my consciousness, my fidelity to the light. He will strip me of everything but honesty and naked will. These I cannot give him. He will have to destroy me, and then he cannot have them. Death is now my friend. I will be no use to him—or his precious Party—dead.

Along this way, very much like the way that St. John of the Cross marked out in The Dark Night of the Soul, thousands of victims came to know themselves at a depth they had never experienced before. They began to distinguish among the movements of their own souls—memory, imagination, desire, dread, understanding, will.

Moreover, when their bodies ached with pain from beatings, and from the application of electrical current, and from being contorted and held for hours in positions of excruciating pain, they learned something else. They learned that the light inside themselves, to which they were trying to be faithful, the light of truth (or at least, the will not to be complicit in a lie), cannot properly be said to be part of themselves. Their initial sense, of course, was that they were being faithful to themselves, clinging to their own minds and wills. When the pain becomes intense enough, however, one sees that one is not really suffering this for oneself. If that were so, why would one not just surrender and make the pain go away? Why wouldn’t one be pragmatic?

Rather, it seemed as though, in being faithful to the truth, and in calling up his stubborn courage of will, a man was answering to something that did not belong to himself, something that called (although it had no voice) from outside his own mind and will, something at any rate not reducible to his own mind. His own mind and will were focused in a direction running contrary to everything good for his body and his comfort and his peace. But why? Why was he running from his own self-interest, narrowly considered?

On the matter of self-interest, his torturer was certainly correct. In fact, the torturer’s insistence on self-interest suggested the one line of thought that explained why the torturer was wrong.

The light in my mind (before which I am trying to be honest) is, as it were, something I participate in, and it is not reducible to me. This light approves of my liberty and grows brighter with my own acts of responsibility to it. This light seems very like what people mean—the people an atheist couldn’t earlier understand—when they speak of God. And yet (as St. John of the Cross insists) in the place where we would like God to be, “no one appears.” Only silence. Emptiness. Nothingness. Yet from emptiness strength emanates, and from it one feels constantly stronger. And more comforted, despite the wracking pain and weariness and tedium, than by anything one has ever before experienced. And one feels true.

In the via negativa, the voyager sees nothing, hears no divine voices, feels no mystic “presence.” As it were, he has before him no more “evidence” concerning God than he did when he called himself an atheist. But he can no longer call himself that. He has come to know that he is no longer accurately described as an atheist. He has been led to the threshold where God dwells, by a dark and obscure knowledge that carries with it a warrant unmistakable to those who have participated in it. He may or may not be ready to say that he believes in “God,” but now he has had the experiences that allow him to know what others have been talking about. Not that these are “experiences” that can be isolated, or that they are a kind of “special knowledge” given to some but not to others. They are, rather, something simpler.

In the act of fidelity to the light—the resolve not willingly to be complicit in a lie—a man has become aware of a dimension of his being he had never glimpsed before in such stark clarity. In this awareness, he is aware of a powerful personal dignity. What impresses him is its inalienability. Unless he is simply destroyed, it cannot be taken away from him without his consent. It is true that later he may weaken and give in. But he does not have to fight later, only now. He needs only to concentrate during this staccato second, one second at a time, on the dark light within.

The fall of communism forces us to confront one of the deepest lessons to be gleaned from a seventy-year plague upon the human race. Even in the emptiness, the sheer willingness not to turn away from the light, not to be complicit in a lie, leads to an experience of the emptiness in which God darkly dwells. Receptivity is all. It is as though our inquiring hearts are already God-shaped, formed in His image, so that when we try to be honest and brave, try to be true to ourselves, that effort is already a form of participation.

Before communism collapsed in 1989, it had also targeted its silent artillery on the human capital of its people, especially the human capital that suited them for personal economic initiative. In defining the nature of capitalism, however, Karl Marx made an egregious mistake. He thought that capitalism is constituted by three institutional arrangements: 1) private property; 2) a market system of exchange; and 3) the private accumulation of profit. These three institutions, however, are all pre-capitalist. They are found in biblical times (and even earlier), whereas scholars hold that “capitalism” is something very new, modern in fact, and quite different from the traditional system based on private property, markets, and profit. Max Weber dated the birth of capitalism after the Protestant Reformation (also a mistake, but indicative of the timing). During the eighteenth century, Adam Smith, David Hume, and others in Scotland and England were arguing for a new system, the defining dynamic of which was to be invention and enterprise. Capitalism applied imagination and practical intelligence to creating new goods and services not provided by earlier systems, agrarian, feudal, and mercantile.

Capitalism is most of all a set of human habits—virtues, in the old-fashioned sense, natural and learned dispositions. The virtue of enterprise consists in both an intellectual habit and a moral habit. The intellectual habit is to notice, often before others do, new creative economic opportunities, new goods to create or new ways to create them; to innovate; to invent. The moral habit is to have the realism, the practicality, the know-how, and the stubborn obstinacy to turn ideas into realities; that is, to make ideas work. Not everybody who has one of these two habits has the other. Enterprise requires both. Enterprise is not unlike the creative habit of the artist, who also makes to be what never was. Business leaders are not infrequently as vainglorious about their creations as any prima donna.

As David Landes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology makes clear in his 1998 study of economic history, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, one main cause of the economic leadership of the West lies in the “joy of discovery” taught to Jews and Christians through the teaching that each woman and each man is made in the image of God, the Creator, and is called to be a creator, too. It goes without saying that communism tried to eradicate this image in the human soul, and to strip away from society every social support that over the ages had been brought to its flourishing. Economic initiative was forbidden. The good Socialist was expected to be receptive to the Collective Will and to submerge individual creativity within it. Private property was abolished. (As late as 1986, along the banks of the dark river in the center of Moscow, huge red letters blazed at night: THE ESSENCE OF SOCIALISM IS THE ABOLITION OF PRIVATE PROPERTY.) The system of market exchange was replaced with a system of national planning, in which each month bureaucrats set the prices for more than twenty million different items, with no reference to the costs, desires, or efforts expended by individual buyers or sellers. (The epistemic problems were insoluble, as Ludwig von Mises had predicted in the 1920s.) As if that weren’t bad enough, communism cut the tie between economic effort and reward. It forbade private accumulation, and settled instead for rewarding its faithful with political favors (including living quarters, dachas, automobiles, and “official” stores).

Communism furthermore set out to abolish the ancient traditions, customs, and habits of law and morality. It wanted to dirty, distort, and bury the past so that it would be irrecoverable. It tried desperately to replace “bourgeois morality” (in reality, the morality of Judaism and Christianity, more dear to the poor perhaps than to the affluent) with “Socialist morality,” in which the human person is never an end but always a means. It taught disregard for critical thinking, personal judgment, and a love for truth in order to make room for Party ideology and propaganda.

As a final affront, it withheld even the simplest goods—toilet paper, meat, oranges—so that humble citizens would have to spend hours in line every week just in order to live. In this way, they might come to feel grateful for the smallest of triumphs. They would also learn to hold themselves in contempt, as unworthy of anything at all except what was allotted to them. Shortages demean people, and communism used them as a means of social control. “Being” is not reducible to “having”; but a human being has a right to personal property, in order to be free to act. The “abolition of private property” was an abolition both of freedom and of dignity.

Thus it is that today the legal and moral traditions of Russia are a shambles. The human capital built up over centuries of religious and humanistic striving was bleached out of each successive generation—one, two, three, four generations in all—and nothing was put in its place but cynicism. Means and ends. Instrumentalism.

Few commentators have noticed this aspect of Communist destructiveness. In destroying the heritage of religion and law, and in destroying the very idea of evidence-based truth, communism destroyed the social capital on which all human progress in liberty depends. Even in a society where liberty is vital and strong, it takes a degree of heroism to act virtuously when others are not doing so. When the whole society frustrates your actions at every turn, it seems futile to act virtuously, and one must struggle daily against the temptation to despair.

Western economists themselves often take the moral and cultural sphere too much for granted. Jennifer Roback of George Mason University describes an American couple who adopted a young boy of three or so from Romania, one of those orphans brought up mass-production style, never held in human arms, fed by a bottle put in place by a mechanical apparatus. Isolated from human closeness with adults until he left the orphanage, the child is grown to young manhood now, handsome, smart, charming—but absolutely incapable of forming a human relationship, capable only of seeking his own will and his own pleasure. He fears close contact with people, only pretending to affection so far as is necessary. Cleverly narcissistic, he lies, steals, cheats—whatever he needs to do to obtain whatever he desires. And all the while, smiling, he charms people by his seemingly open manner. He has already been arrested once for shoplifting, and his teachers at school, for a time in love with him, have reluctantly had to report the times he has stolen things from his classmates.

Professor Roback suggests that the totally self-centered impulse that moves this child, the total preoccupation with his own physical self-interest at the expense of all other more noble interests, sounds remarkably like what the economists conventionally discuss as “economic self-interest.” She has challenged other economists to tell her in what respect the conduct of this warped and totally narcissistic young man differs from the behavior of their theoretical “economic man.” This challenge infuriates the economists, she has found, but they only sputter and do not answer it.

When they have had time to reflect upon it, however, they may realize that the homo economicus of their theories is really a moral person with highly developed humanistic virtues taken from Judaism, Christianity, or some correlative tradition. For when economists write “rational,” they also mean “law-abiding” and at least minimally “honest,” “trustworthy,” and “morally reliable.” They emphatically do not mean a crook, cheat, liar, manipulator, or narcissist with whom it is impossible to have a trusting relationship. A deal has to be a deal. A partner one cannot trust brings a high cost in efficiency, and a high probability of eventual disaster. The true anthropology of capitalism, the only premise on which it can work, encodes a far richer morality than is exemplified by that unfortunate orphan.

Analogously, an unfortunate orphan brought up until the age of three without human contact, warmth, or emotional involvement is not a fair metaphor for the ordinary people who endured the imposition of amoral communism upon them for decades. But it is a fair metaphor for the aims and practices of communism. Where there ought to be a “self” in that young man, there is a cipher. This child learned to determine his direction by negotiating his way around any resistance he meets to getting what he wants, like a robot bumping and bouncing away, incapable of internal self-government. Within his own personal history, there is a dialectic of resistant objects that have marked out the paths forced upon him: a kind of miniature Dialectical Materialism, blind and irresistible.

Also inhuman.

Long before World War II ended, a group of economists and philosophers in Germany began thinking about the novus ordo that would have to replace Nazism once Hitler came to the end of his line. They recognized that if they were to build a humane society they would have to reconstruct a new political order, a new economic order, and a new moral/cultural order. To construct any one of these orders is a herculean job, but to be obliged to construct all three—and to be obliged to do so almost simultaneously—is virtually superhuman.

The hope of these “Ordo economists,” as they called themselves, was that Germany had not suffered total cultural and moral damage under Nazism, given that the regime had lasted only twelve years. They further hoped that there were strong remnants of the humanistic past that could again be drawn upon, but in a more careful way. Their philosophy, and their vision of a “social market economy,” became the practical guide to the “miraculous” success of postwar Germany. Their great success shows that it is not impossible to construct the three interdependent social systems—political, economic, and moral/cultural—that constitute the free society, in which free persons and free communities can flourish, and even to do so within a relatively short time. This success gives heart to all who must achieve something similar, even if yet more difficult.

Such a task, moreover, is never fully done once and for all, but must often be recapitulated. Each generation needs to rediscover why the free society is constructed as it is, and why it demands so many sacrifices and so much unrelenting effort. The free society is moral, or not at all. That is why it is so precarious. Any one generation, deciding that it is not worth the cost, can throw it over.

But the moral situation of the formerly Communist countries is far more desperate than the situation of Germany in 1945. For the moral destruction that communism wrought in Russia during seventy-two years had to be far more destructive of traditional institutions, practices, and associations. The damage to human capital was incalculable.

This much we know. Even under the best of conditions, it is extremely difficult to construct a free society that works, that endures, that is self-correcting. The silent artillery that communism leveled at the human spirit and at every internal nerve of human capital for more than seventy years had its effect. The transition from communism to a free society is consequently a severely demanding moral task. It is a transition to a society free from torture, assassination, extortion, and tyranny in its political system; nourishing orderly and creative enterprise and liberating the poor from poverty in its economic system; and through its cultural system rewarding the habits that make a free economy and a free polity both possible and worthwhile.

How that transition goes is perhaps the greatest issue of our time. Everything depends upon the use that humans make of the liberty with which each is endowed, while there is still time to affect the outcome. We are the subjects of this drama, not the objects.

Thomas Jefferson, no orthodox believer, put it this way: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” It is no hindrance to our purposes to understand that liberty is the Creator’s jewel, favored by Providence. Theism is no hindrance to personal dignity. On the contrary, it is its source.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from a paper given at a Heritage Foundation conference in Rome.