Eric Hobsbawm, the distinguished historian and former member of the British Communist Party, was once asked: “Would you say you would have done anything that the Party told you to do?” “Of course,” Hobsbawm replied. “We all would. The commitment, particularly in the 1930s—we were all deeply, profoundly committed. There wasn’t anything that was more important in life than the great cause.”
On the centenary of the great cause, voices like Hobsbawm’s have been lost amid a familiar debate. For much of today’s right, Communism should simply be remembered as a machine for the production of human suffering—and a warning of what can happen when egalitarian ideals take hold of a generation. For much of the left, the 1917 revolution is still an inspiration—even if everyone accepts that it “degenerated” at some point or other. But there is a limit to how much Communism can be used as a terrible example or a (partial) model. Something has vanished that was integral to it: the total dedication of people like Hobsbawm, for whom nothing in life was more important. This was why Communists were able to triumph even in countries where they began as a small minority; it was one reason why Communist parties held onto power even in countries where they were widely hated.
The Communists’ cheerful self-abnegation made them a different species from today’s socialist movements, at least in the West. In the Hungary of 1947, for instance, volunteer teams of Party members spent their weekends in the countryside repairing war-damaged churches, in order to win the goodwill of the local population. The story is told in Communism from the Inside, an exposé by the former member Douglas Hyde, whose concluding paragraph remarks: “The strength of the Communist Party lies in the zeal of its members, for whom no sacrifice is too great, no job too hard.”
Communism was not a part of life, or an umbrella for one’s political sympathies—it was the whole of existence. Many Soviet parents thought of their children, without irony, as “children of the revolution”; in the West, Communists lived with one foot in society and the other in an incomparably more important world of activism and organization and doctrinal study. A child of New York Communists recalled what it was like:
It is perhaps hard to understand now, but at that time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity as translated by the Communist Party induced in the most ordinary of men and women a sense of one’s own humanity that ran deep, made life feel large; large and clarified. It was to this clarity of inner being that so many became not only attached, but addicted. No reward of life, no love nor fame nor wealth, could compete with the experience. It was this all-in-allness of world and self that, all too often, made of the Communists true believers who could not face up to the police state corruption at the heart of their faith, even when a 3-year-old could see that it was eating itself alive.
The author remembers these “addicts” as palpably alive with a kind of joyful yearning. “I understood nothing of what they said, but I was always excited by the richness of their rhetoric, the intensity of their arguments, the urgency and longing behind that hot river of words that came pouring ceaselessly from them.”
Because the Party gave form to this “urgency and longing,” members renounced their freedom for its sake. Jung Chang has described how her parents, regional officials under Maoism, were forced to live apart for much of the time. They found it hard to bear, but—at least at first—they accepted that their highest loyalty was not to each other.
With loyalty came a horror of betrayal. In Britain, you took a financial and professional risk by carrying a Party card. It was always tempting to leave, and ex-members presented to the Communist a frightening spectacle: In the face of the apostate, a Communist saw his worst nightmare of himself. “Even when I was quite small,” writes Alexei Sayle, the child of Liverpool Communists, “we would be out shopping and my mother or father would gesticulate towards some harmless-looking individual and say in a whisper: ‘See him over there trying on gloves? He left the party over Hungary in 1956 and now he’s . . .’ Here they would pause before revealing the full horror: ‘. . . a Labour councillor!’”
Given that Labour’s constitution, at that point, called for “the common ownership of the means of production,” this was not hostility towards some completely opposed doctrine. It was the anguish at seeing someone who had fallen away from the fullness of truth.
Perhaps it was the softening of Communist dogma, its transformation from a system into a collection of causes, which brought about the decline. It is hard to love an all-embracing view which does not claim to be the absolute truth. But whatever the cause, Communists eventually ran out of steam. In the mid-1980s, someone asked Douglas Hyde for permission to republish one of his essays, about the secret of Communism’s success. Hyde refused, saying it was now out of date: Communism had lost its ethos of self-sacrificial commitment.
Today’s left has inherited some of Communism’s doctrines, and is motivated by the same well-founded anger at the exploitation of the powerless. Just as importantly, Communism’s myths and rituals have now passed into the progressive mainstream. But this outsider’s impression is that trying to believe, really believe, in Communism now would be like trying to believe in Moloch or Anubis. The “clarity of inner being,” the willingness to give up everything, which animated previous generations of revolutionaries, has vanished.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.