As the Olympics got underway in post-Soviet Russia this weekend, a moment in NBC's coverage briefly revived a Soviet-era controversy: the charge that Western liberals are soft on communism.
Narrating the network's lead segment on the opening ceremonies, actor Peter Dinklage mused on Russia's history and referred to "the revolution that birthed one of modern history's pivotal experiments." Conservative blogs quickly accused NBC of glorifying Russia's Soviet past. Unfortunately, such a rose-tinted view of communism is not an isolated instance. It is a mindset that still infects the left and, too often, spills over into more mainstream liberalism.
Salon.com, a leader in the left-of-center media, recently published an article by activist Jesse Myerson titled "Why you're wrong about communism," purporting to debunk American "misconceptions" on the subject. Among those alleged errors: the notion that "communism killed 110 million people for resisting dispossession." First, Myerson writes that the 110 million figure is not rooted in "sound research." Actually, the figure, based on "The Black Book of Communism," a landmark 1999 work, may be too low: The book lists a body count of 20 million for the Soviet Union, but some scholars put the number of terror victims at 20 million-25 million and the death toll from regime-made famines as high as 10 million.
Second, Myerson argues, many victims were not resistant property owners but people who were Communists. So? No anti-communist ever claimed that all of communism's victims died for refusing collectivization. Rather, the idea of collective ownership could be imposed only through such violent coercion that even supporters of that "dream" were caught in the terror machine.
Myerson offers other standard excuses (the Soviets had to fight a revolutionary war and battle the Nazis) before turning to China to conclude that Mao's Great Leap Forward, which caused a famine that killed tens of millions, had nothing to do with communism. Then, he asserts that if communism must be held accountable for its terror toll, capitalism should be blamed not only for the deaths in wars against Communist regimes, but also for presumed future deaths from climate change. Someone should tell him communism was no environmental paradise.
While Myerson is on the far left, milder versions of such apologetics can be found closer to the media mainstream. In 2005, reviewing a biography of Mao, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued that "Mao's legacy is not all bad" and that his rule "brought useful changes to China."
Meanwhile, U.S. Communists such as folk singer Pete Seeger, a onetime admirer of Josef Stalin, often get a pass for supporting murderous totalitarianism. After Seeger's death last month, David Graham, a political editor at The Atlantic, admitted the singer took some "distressing and dangerous positions" -- but argued that his pro-communist politics were part of an idealistic commitment to social justice that also led him to embrace the civil rights movement.
After "The Black Book of Communism" was published, socialist writer Daniel Singer lamented in The Nation that to see communism as "merely the story of crimes" -- rather than flawed but real "social advancement" -- is to give up on the possibility of "radical transformation" today. It's a telling admission. Many on the left still yearn for egalitarian alternatives to capitalism, often finding them in authoritarian left-wing regimes such as the rule of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Democratic capitalism is nothing if not flawed. But if there is one thing the 20th century should have taught us, it's to beware of noble "experiments" that use human beings as their fodder.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.