Twenty-five years ago, a crowd filled with an uneasy mixture of joy and rage tore down the Berlin Wall. There was joy for the end of Germany’s partition and the end of tyranny. There was rage against generations of fear. One fear was of communist oppression. The other fear was of the threat of a war, which had loomed over Europe and Germany since 1945. One fear was moral and ideological, while the other was prudential and geopolitical. As in all defining political moments, fear and rage, ideology and geopolitics, blended together in an intoxicating mix.
Twenty-five years later, we take for granted the moral bankruptcy of Soviet Communism, along with its geopolitical weakness. It is difficult for us to remember how seductive Marxism was, and how frightening Soviet power was. For my generation, at the better universities, Marxism was not an exotic form of oriental despotism, but a persuasive explanation of the world and how it worked, as well as a moral imperative that a stunning number of students and faculty were committed to. The vast majority of Marxists in what was called the New Left adopted it as fashion more than passion. A small segment of the New Left, particularly in Europe and supported by Soviet intelligence, took direct action and took risks, killing, wounding, kidnapping and blowing things up in the pursuit of political aims. The latter had courage; the former were shallow and cynical. There is no doubt that the shallow and cynical were more praiseworthy.
Still, ideologically, Marxism in its several varieties had a persuasive power that is difficult for even those of us who lived through it to recall. Its pull had little to do with industrial democracy, although songs from the labor movement were sung regularly. It was far less about the proletariat and more a revolt against what was seen as the shallow one-dimensionality of affluence. It was never clear to me what Marxists had against affluence, as I was relatively poor, but the venom against the previous generation’s capitulation to ordinary life was intense.
Marxism had become the ideology of the young, who celebrated its moral superiority. This should not be dismissed. The young have driven European revolutions since 1789, and they have always been driven by a deep sense of moral superiority. The passion of the young Karl Marx, writing amid the risings of 1848, led directly to Lenin and then Stalin. The self-righteous young have consequence, something no one attending a major Euro-American university in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet empire could ignore. Bitterness against those over 30 (then considered old) was a greater driver than class struggle. That the young feel superior to the old is built into the Enlightenment. We believe in progress, and the young have more of a future than the old.
In looking at pictures of the celebrants at the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was the young who had risen up. I was not in Berlin in those days, but I had been to Berlin before, and Berlin was a dynamo of Marxism. I am morally and statistically certain that many of those celebrating the collapse of the Berlin Wall were Marxists.
When the Berlin Wall came down, it for the most part destroyed Marxism. The so-called New Left believed Soviet Communism was a betrayal of communism. Since Marxism argued that history was in some sense deterministic, how Marxism could have failed from a Marxist point of view was never clear to me. But in the end, the Marxism of my generation had more to do with the fact that their parents, shaped in the Great Depression and World War II, were content with a house and a car, a spouse and some savings. The young always have greater aspirations than to simply live, but they grow out of it.
The fate of Marxism in Europe and the United States differed greatly from its fate in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Marxism died in the Soviet Union with Stalin. With Mao, Stalin was the last great Communist. It was not just that he believed, but that he acted on that belief. At the heart of communism was the class struggle, and that didn’t end when the Communist Party had won. The Party and the people had to be purged, shaped and forged into something unprecedented. It was to be an agonizing process, and Stalin was prepared to impose the agony. Stalin is the finest argument there is against sincerity. He sincerely believed not only in the possibility of creating a new society, but in the brutal actions needed to achieve it.
Stalin killed communism. He was right that creating a new society required agony. He didn’t realize, or perhaps in the end didn’t care, that the agony required made the new society pointless, corrupt before it was born. Nikita Khrushchev tried to build a communist state without Stalinism. But when Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny overthrew Khrushchev in 1964, it was the revolution of the exhausted. Their lives were built on a single triumph: They had survived Stalin. Their goal was to continue surviving. Brezhnev destroyed communism by trying to hold absolute power and do as little with it as possible. He sank into corruption and weakness, as did his regime. The empire didn’t revolt. It simply took advantage of the fact that the Soviet Union was too corrupt and self-indulgent to hold onto them. It was less a revolution than the fact that the jailhouse door had been left unlocked.
Marxism destroyed itself because it took power, and putting Marxism on display in power ultimately cost it its credibility. Had it never been in power, more than the tiny handful who are still Marxists might take it seriously.
Marxism was repudiated as an ideology, even as it had repudiated ideology in general. It was the culmination of the Enlightenment, not only because Marxism had the most extreme notion of equality imaginable but also because it was ruthlessly consistent. It had views not only on politics and economics, but also on art, the proper raising of children, proper methods of plowing and the role of sports in society. It had views on everything, and with the power of the state at its disposal, nothing was outside its purview. In the end, Marxism discredited the Enlightenment. It was the reductio ad absurdum of systematic reason. Marxism shattered the Enlightenment into an infinite number of prisms, each free to live the one life Marxism could not tolerate: a life of contradictions. We are heir to the incoherence it left.
But the truth was that Marxism not only failed to create the society it wished, it also did not effectively motivate the New Left. Marxism never succeeded in escaping the primordial reality of the human condition. I don’t mean this as not escaping self-interest or corruption. What it failed to do was escape the reality of community as the foundation of human existence, more important than the individual, and certainly more important than class.
From the beginning to the end, the Soviet Union was an empire. It had a center in Moscow and an apparatus that controlled other, lesser vassal states. It could claim that the