Acton Commentary

Remembering Communism

Fifteen years ago thismonth, the world witnessed the downfall of Communism’s greatest symbol. Asguards stood by, Berliners gathered before the Wall that had scarred their citysince the 1960s and, taking Ronald Reagan’s advice to Mikhail Gorbachev, begantearing it down.

In the span of centuries, fifteen years is not a longtime. It is extraordinary, however, how quickly awareness of Marxist regimeshas faded from public memory. Millions of people know about the Nazis’atrocities. Relatively few have heard of the millions imprisoned, tortured, andmurdered by Communist systems. Even fewer know about the faithful Orthodox,Protestant, and Roman Catholic Christians who suffered at the hands of Marxistoppression.

What people do know is that Communism was an economicdisaster. As early as the 1920s, wiser economists argued that command economiescould never work. It was simply impossible, they noted, for a group of plannersto know all the information about supply and demand conveyed in free economiesthrough the price mechanism.

Still, despite its economic deficiencies, Communismlumbered along, held in place by corruption, apathy, and, above all, fear.Though often unable to access even basic material essentials, millions remainedcowed by the terrorist methods employed by Communist regimes—methods thatdefine them as being as criminal as the Nazis.

It’s tempting to believe that Communism’s economicwoes were responsible for its collapse. Communism’s persistence in North Koreaand Cuba, however, suggests that an economic system mired in stagnation is noguarantee that tyrants will lose power.

In this light, we begin to understand that 1989represented not simply admission of Communism’s economic bankruptcy. Morefundamentally, Communism’s collapse throughout Central-East Europe was theresult of a moral revolution—an insurrection wrought by Christianity andits non-negotiable demand that all governments affirm the human person’sintrinsic dignity.

The roots of this upheaval may be found in thestruggle of the Catholic Church in Poland to maintain its liberty and proclaima vision of man rather different from that articulated by Marxism. It is littlewonder that the gray, cold men in the Kremlin are reported to have gone whitewith shock upon hearing that a Pole had been elected to the Chair of Peter.

From then on, Central-East Europe was relentlesslysubjected to a call to liberty—a liberty that has nothing in common withthe hedonistic autonomy so assiduously promoted in Western Europe since the1960s. This was a call, rather, toa freedom grounded in the truth about the person as the very image of God.

It was a message that gave people courage to raisetheir heads and cease feeling humiliated; that reminded them of their dignityand that the state existed for them, and not they for the state. It was amessage that told them that religious liberty was owed to them by the state;that they possessed what John Paul II called “the right to economicinitiative;” and that Communist political structures—be they of theLeninist, Maoist, Latin American, or African variety—were utterlyincompatible with authentic human freedom.

No one is going to die willingly for utility orefficiency. People will, however, give their lives for love or liberty. Therewas no greater witness to this willingness to reject evil than the millions ofChristians who flocked to see Pope John Paul when he visited Poland in 1979. Inthe end, the only way the Communists could cope with the ensuing desire ofPoles to live in truth was to declare “a state of war” and order the army toinvade its own country in December 1981. Yet within 8 years, one of thoseindividuals imprisoned by the Communists became Poland’s first non-Communistprime minister since World War II. Such was the impact of Central-East Europe’smoral revolution.

Fifteen years later, freedom in Europe is again undersiege. Western Europe’s economic decline surely reflects many Europeangovernments’ unwillingness to take economic liberty seriously. Politicalliberty is also under attack from what is nothing less than asecularist-fundamentalism that permits former Communist officials to becomeEuropean Union commissioners, while treating Christians who politely but firmlyrefuse to disguise their faith as if they are the equivalent of OsamaBin-laden.

Clearly, while the EU is a long way from degeneratinginto the Communist systems of yesteryear, totalitarian tendencies remain aliveand well throughout Europe. But if Communism’s demise teaches us anything, itis that people of hope have reason to believe that liberty grounded in thetruth about man consistently overcomes its opponents—be they of theMarxist, Nazi, or secularist-fundamentalist variety. For authentic libertygives rise to life, while totalitarianism is the path to death. And lifeenables us to flourish as we ought. A culture of death, by contrast, carriesthe seeds of its self-destruction.