Why our intellectuals have missed the reality of Marxism


THE EUROPEAN intellectual community, including the scientific community, should be embarrassed by the easy ride it gave to communism over the course of the 20th century. This tolerance contrasts sharply with the universal and understandable revulsion directed towards Nazism.

And yet, as Claire Berlinski writes in The City Journal, (Spring, 2010), “It is not nearly as well understood that communism led just as inexorably, everywhere on the globe where it was applied, to starvation, torture and slave labour camps . . . was responsible for the deaths of some 150 million human beings during the 20th century. The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.” The article illustrates this indifference by describing two massive archives of top-secret Soviet Communist documents that are currently lying unread in the hands of Russian exiles and no reputable library will house, translate or publish them.

Communism was popular with British intellectuals after the first World War. These included many prominent scientists such as molecular biologist JD Bernal (1901-1971), geneticist JBS Haldane (1892-1964), biochemist Joseph Needham (1900-1995), mathematician Hyman Levy (1989–1975) and men of letters such as George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Many of these luminaries frequently visited the Soviet Union but rationalised away the negative evidence they encountered. To his credit, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1920) withdrew his support for the Russian Revolution after visiting Russia in 1920. He decided that the regime there was not a “dictatorship of the proletariat” but a dictatorship over the proletariat. Russell described his change of mind in his book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) claimed to have discovered the “laws” that govern how society works, and he promoted his work as having the hallmark validity characteristic of the natural sciences, and, indeed, his historical and economic synthesis is impressive. Marx believed he had rationalised social science just as Darwin had rationalised biological science. Marx even asked Darwin to endorse his theory, but Darwin declined.

Many British scientists found conventional political action unsatisfying and ineffective and felt “an insatiable impulse to control nature and society” fuelled by “a passionate confidence in the power of science” (quotation from Neal Wood in Communism and British Intellectuals– Columbia University Press, 1959). And, so, a society organised on “scientific” Marxist principles in which the natural sciences were harnessed to power a centrally-planned economy looked very attractive to many scientists tired of contemplating the “irrational social institutions” in Britain. Of course, Stalin’s promotion of Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) and his heretical ideas on genetics in the 1940s, later somewhat cooled the ardour of many of these British scientists for communism.

In 1997, after the fall of the Soviet empire, an influential book The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror and Repressionwas published in France, authored by several European academics. The English translation is published by Harvard University Press. The book draws on extensive archival material that became available after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The Black Bookdescribes a history of political and civilian repression by communist states including genocides, executions, deportations and artificial famines. It estimates a toll of 65 million deaths of victims in the People’s Republic of China and 20 million in the Soviet Union, and claims that Communism was responsible for more deaths than any other political ideal or movement, including Nazism. The book received widespread support but was also subjected to considerable criticism. Some critics argue that the book is one-sided.

At this stage, few would deny that the 20th-century communist regimes had a bad record. But, public criticism of communism was very muted in Europe over the course of the 20th century, while opportunities were rarely missed to criticise the US. I think this is largely explained by the influence on the media of the left wing European intelligentsia.

This lop-sided attitude even extended to nuclear accidents. In 1979 the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania suffered a partial core meltdown. This was a very serious incident but the released radioactivity was small, inflicting little ill-health effects. Nevertheless I recall a furious public reaction in Ireland, particularly in left-wing circles. This contrasted markedly with left-wing reaction to the immeasurably greater nuclear accident in 1986 at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. The cutting edge of Irish left-wing politics then was the Workers Party. About 10 days elapsed, if memory serves me accurately, from the date of the Chernobyl accident to the release of the first Workers Party statement on the accident.

I was decidedly left-wing as a young man, being impressed both by the egalitarian ideals and the “scientific” credentials of Marxism. However, I changed my mind as I gradually learned about hard-core socialism in action. This record should be aired very publicly, otherwise we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC – understandingscience.ucc.ie