Why Do People Become Communists, and Why Do They Stick With It?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve puzzled about why people become communists. I have no doubt about why someone would stop being one. After all, we have a century of evidence of the murder, famine, and general destruction caused by the idea. Ignoring all this takes a special kind of willful blindness to reality.

Even the theory of communism itself is a complete mess. There is really no such thing as common ownership of goods that are obviously scarce in the real world. There must be some solution to the problem of scarcity beyond just wishing reality away. Perhaps ownership and trade? Slogans and dreams are hardly a suitable substitute for a workable program.

But how communism would work in practice is not something they want to talk about. They just imagined that some magical Hegelian shift would take place in the course of history that would work it all out.

So if there is no rational case for communism as such, why do people do go for this stuff?

The Red Century

The New York Times has been exploring that issue in a series of remarkable reflections that they have labelled Red Century. I can’t get enough, even the ones that are written by people who are—how shall I say?—suspiciously sympathetic to communism as a cause.

The most recent installment is written by Vivian Gornick. She reflects on how her childhood world was dominated by communists.

The sociology of the progressive world was complex. At its center were full-time organizers for the Communist Party, at the periphery left-wing sympathizers, and at various points in between everything from rank-and-file party card holders to respected fellow travelers….

When these people sat down to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them; above all, History sat down with them. They spoke and thought within a context that lifted them out of the nameless, faceless obscurity into which they had been born, and gave them the conviction that they had rights as well as obligations. They were not simply the disinherited of the earth, they were proletarians with a founding myth of their own (the Russian Revolution) and a civilizing worldview (Marxism).

While it is true that thousands of people joined the Communist Party in those years because they were members of the hardscrabble working class (garment district Jews, West Virginia miners, California fruit pickers), it was even truer that many more thousands in the educated middle class (teachers, scientists, writers) joined because for them, too, the party was possessed of a moral authority that lent shape and substance, through its passion for structure and the eloquence of its rhetoric, to an urgent sense of social injustice….

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.

Sounds fascinating, if bonkers (Marxism is hardly a “civilizing worldview”). It sounds less like an intellectual salon of ideas and more like a religious delusion. Those too can be well intentioned. The key here is a dogmatic ideology, which serves as a kind of substitute for religion. It has a vision of hell (workers and peasants exploited by private-capital wielding capitalist elite), a vision of heaven (a world of universal and equal prosperity and peace), and a means of getting from one to the other (revolution from below, as led by the vanguard of the proletariat).

Once you accept such an ideology, anything intellectual becomes possible. Nothing can shake you from it. Okay, that’s not entirely true. One thing can shake you of it: when the leader of the cult repudiates the thing you believe in most strongly.

Khrushchev’s Heresy

She was 20 years old in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev spoke to the Soviet Communist Party about the crimes of Stalin. Apparently the unrelenting reports of famine, persecution, and mass death, from the early years of Bolshevik rule – and even the revelation of the Hitler-Stalin pact – would have demoralized them earlier. But no:

The 20th Congress report brought with it political devastation for the organized left around the world. Within weeks of its publication, 30,000 people in this country quit the party, and within the year it was as it had been in its 1919 beginnings: a small sect on the American political map.

Amazing.

The Early Reds

And speaking of this small 1919 sect, I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies: Reds (1981). I could watch it another 20 times. It explores the lives of the American communists of the turn of the 20th century, their loves, longings, and aspirations. The focus is on fiery but deluded Jack Reed, but it includes portraits of a passionate Louise Bryant, the gentile Max Eastman, an edgy Eugene O’Neill, and the ever inspiring Emma Goldman.

These people weren’t the Progressives of the mainstream that history credits with having so much influence over policy in those days. These were the real deal: the Communists that were the source of national frenzy during the Red Scare of the 1920s.

The movie portrays them not as monsters but idealists. They were all very talented, artistic, mostly privileged in upbringing, and what drew them to communism was not bloodlust for genocide but some very high ideals.

They felt a passion for justice. They wanted to end war. They opposed exploitation. They longed for universal freedom and maximum civil liberty. They despised the entrenched hierarchies of the old order and hoped for a new society in which everyone had an equal chance.

All of that sounds reasonable until you get to the details. The communists had a curious understanding of each of these concepts. Freedom meant freedom from material want. Justice meant a planned distribution of goods. The end of war meant a new form of war against the capitalists who they believed created war. The hierarchies they wanted to be abolished were not just state-privileged nobles but also the meritocratic elites of industrial capitalism.

Why be a communist rather than just a solid liberal of the old school? In the way the movie portrays it, the problem was not so much in their goals but in their mistaken means. They hated the state as it existed but imagined that a new “dictatorship of the proletariat” could become a transition mechanism to usher in their classless society. That led them to cheer on the Bolshevik Revolution in its early stages, and work for the same thing to happen in the United States.

The Dream Dies

Watching their one-by-one demoralization is painful. Goldman sees the betrayal immediately. Reed becomes an apologist for genocide. Bryant forgets pretending to be political and believing in free love, marries Reed, and tends to his medical needs before his death. O’Neill just becomes a full-time cynic (and drunk). It look Max Eastman longer to lose the faith but he eventually became an anti-socialist and wrote for FEE.

The initial demoralization of the early American communists came in the 1920s. They came to realize that all the warning against this wicked ideology – having been written about for many centuries prior, even back to the ancient world – were true.

Eastman, for example, realized that he was seeking to liberate people by taking from them the three things people love most in life: their families, their religion, and their property. Instead of creating a new heaven on earth, they had become apologists for a killing machine.

Stunned and embarrassed, they moved on with life.

But the history didn’t end there. There were still more recruits being added to the ranks, generations of them. The same thing happened after 1989. Some people lost the faith, others decided that socialism needs yet another chance to strut its stuff.

It’s still going on today.

As for the Communist Party in America, most left-Progressives of the Antifa school regard the Party as an embarrassing sellout, wholly own by the capitalist elite. And when we see their spokesmen appear on television every four years, they sound not unlike pundits we see on TV every night.

It would be nice if any article written about communism were purely retrospective. That, sadly, is not the case. There seem to be new brands of Marxian thought codified every few years, and still more versions of its Hegelian roots that take on ever more complex ideological iterations (the alt-right is an example).

Why do people become communists? Because human beings are capable of believing in all sorts of illusions, and we are capable of working long and hard to turn them into nightmares. Once we’ve invested the time and energy into something, however destructive, it can take a very long time to wake us up. It’s hard to think of a grander example of the sunk-cost fallacy.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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8 comments

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  • Rose Wilder Lane started out as a communist. She very nearly joined the communist party. Don’t dismiss it as mere believing in illusions. She wasn’t confused about the meaning of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, she just felt strongly that something ought to be done about the inequality of wealth and bringing poor people out of poverty. She only turned away from communism because she realized that the way to fix the wealth distribution problem was through the ‘anarchy of individualism’ and not through the State. She was right, of course.

    Communists are often just people looking for solutions and answers to serious problems with the world. Nothing surprising about that. Of course, they are looking in the wrong place. I should have thought that if they keep an open mind they’ll eventually discover that individual liberty will get them where they’re trying to go. You’d be surprised how many people were commies in their youth.

  • Communism for Kids published by MIT Press “proposes a different kind of communism, one that is true to its ideals and free from authoritarianism.” So communism with the ideal bits but without the nasty bits. You will need an argument against communism that doesn’t focus on the nasty guys, as the nasty guys will soon be airbrushed from the story.

  • >Because human beings are capable of believing in all sorts of illusions, and we are capable of >working long and hard to turn them into nightmares.

    Instead of this piece, I know you could have written, “Why Do People Become Statists, and Why Do They Stick With It?” Not only are human beings capable of believing in all sorts of illusions, but they prefer belief in illusion and myth to reality. I repeatedly ponder the possible root causes and evolution of this human preference.

    • @calinb
      >>Because human beings are capable of believing in all sorts of illusions, and we are
      >>capable of working long and hard to turn them into nightmares.
      >
      >Instead of this piece, I know you could have written, “Why Do People Become Statists,
      >and Why Do They Stick With It?”

      Or: “Why Do People Become Catholics [or your favorite flavor of superstition], and Why Do They Stick With It?”

      >Not only are human beings capable of believing in all sorts of illusions, but they
      > prefer belief in illusion and myth to reality. I repeatedly ponder the possible root
      >causes and evolution of this human preference.

      Good question.

  • It is very human and very understandable to prefer the easy way, instead of the hard way. I don’t find that difficult to understand. Communism does promise a life of ease. No, it doesn’t work, but it’s not puzzling that people would follow such a promise.

    In fact the real question is why do people choose to value individual liberty, when it is so hard and so risky to stand on your own two feet with nobody but yourself to blame when things go wrong? It’s actually much easier to sit back and let the government take care of everything. For most people it’s easier to have someone else that you can blame when things go wrong. Personal responsibility is VERY difficult for most people. Being a bit lazy is a very human trait.

  • @wanjirunjoya Please listen to the following only under these conditions “Please do as I requested, only if you can do so with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck. Please do not do as I request if there is any taint of fear of punishment if you don’t. Please do not do as I request to buy my love, that, is hoping that I will love you more if you do. Please do not do as I request if you will feel guilty if you don’t. Please do not do as I request if you will feel shameful. And certainly do not do as I request out of any sense of duty or obligation.” — Marshall Rosenberg

    Whenever you make a request of someone, hand them a little card which says the above on it:

    Why? Why not?

    The difference between revolutionary freedom and a language of domination…

    Watch “Intimate Relationships Marshall B Rosenberg Part 3” on YouTube
    https://youtu.be/OwNnIubnnn0

    Is it (conceptually) built in? A way to get around the complexity…
    Watch “Intimate Relationships Marshall B Rosenberg Part 4” on YouTube
    https://youtu.be/CkGN7UkGHms

    • Re: Jeffrey Tucker’s Question: For as long as I can remember, I’ve puzzled about why people become communists.

      [But given the evidence]…”Why Do They Stick With It”? Paraphrased from JT subject title.

      I’m Guessing this will shed some light:

      Few minute Intro: Watch “Why don’t we [I] change, even though we [I]  want to? Marshall Rosenberg” on YouTube

      https://youtu.be/ABEwI8H-TJI

      Continues after 40.21 thru to 1.00+ here:

      Watch “Marshall Rosenberg – Making Life Wonderful. DVD3/4 – Nonviolent Communication workshop – NVC” on YouTube

      https://youtu.be/3LBDm7fpuD8

      AtlasAikido

      Recap paraphrased from above:

      Labelling oneself as late person, alcoholic as cause of action is misdiagnosis [as is perhaps labelling oneself as a communist ]….

      Begins with real and#or perceived interference with person’s need/value for “autonomy” perhaps long after interference may have ended regarding Demand: Be X, Y, Z or else! 

      Person (1) Rebels by hounding/jackaling himself 
      Or
      Person does own thing (2)

      The Demands addressed or perceived as such are:
      X: be early on time or Else.
      Y: be aware and sober or Else.
      Z: give to community or Else.

      Bottomline not out of Memnoon see prior post
      Vs
      Internal Demand to do X, Y, Z or Else!

      Result
      Person (1 ) Rebels and hounds himself
      Stimulated by X and is chronically late

      Stimulated by Y drinks over does alcohol

      Stimulated by Z takes from others via The State

      All three say they want it to be different given what they see. Cannot stop the psychological trap they have set themselves, by how they take something done to them and where they place their focus.

      Some do as person (2) which is: do own thing connected to their own need/value for autonomy and…

      But person (1) is stuck in rebel mode, push back, cut one’s nose off to spite ones face regarding “autonomy”  interferred with.

      This Work-It-Out does not address NAP , Non Aggression Principle (non initiation of force) issues related to Z.

      AtlasAikido

      Ref: Memnoon

      Watch “Marshall Rosenberg – Memnoon Concept (Audio)” on YouTube

      https://youtu.be/lMJE7cR_I2Y

      Whenever you make a request of someone, hand them a little card which says this on it: “Please do as I requested, only if you can do so with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck. Please do not do as I request if there is any taint of fear of punishment if you don’t. Please do not do as I request to buy my love, that, is hoping that I will love you more if you do. Please do not do as I request if you will feel guilty if you don’t. Please do not do as I request if you will feel shameful. And certainly do not do as I request out of any sense of duty or obligation.” — Marshall Rosenberg

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