The God That Failed – Ex-Communists Writings – A Summary

The book “The God That Failed” is a series of six essays written by ex-Communists from Europe and America. Below is a summary of the book which are a good start in refuting Communism as an ideology, which is diametrically opposed to the Shari’a and violates many of its maqasid: the protection of property and religion.

By Robert T. OKEEFFE

For readers interested in the intellectual history of the twentieth century, this book is a fundamental document. “The God that Failed” refers to Communism as it manifested itself in the USSR between 1917 and the time of the book’s publication in 1949 (and as it was established in the USSR’s satellite states after 1945). In their own phrase, the Russian experience was “real existing socialism”, based on so-called Marxist-Leninist principles, whose most adept pupil was Josef Stalin; unfortunately it became the inflexible model for future developments elsewhere. The book is an anthology of six “confessional” essays by three continental writers (Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, and Andre Gide, all novelists and essayists), one English writer (Stephen Spender, poet) and two American writers (Richard Wright, novelist, and Louis Fischer, political journalist). All of them had either joined the Party and worked on its behalf or had been prestigious foreign fellow-travelers of the Russian regime, speaking and writing on its behalf. By 1948 they had all rejected their earlier intellectual and emotional commitments to the Party and to communism (but not to their own ideal versions of socialism – they never became conservatives). The broad appeal of theoretical Marxism and its first “instantiation”, Russian Communism, to intellectuals all over the world, regardless of their very different individual life histories – nobody could have experienced his own youth and its surrounding society more differently than Gide and Wright, for instance — was presumably based on its utopian goals regarding social justice. It aimed to bring about a reformation of man and society by supplying human beings with a political and ideological framework in which economic exploitation would vanish and all men and women would have freedom and equality in a world where the state had “withered away” since it was no longer necessary. This comprises a theology in which private property and the division of labor (hardened into class structure) are original sin and its consequence. The miseries of the Great Depression, a typical phenomenon of the boom and bust cycles in capitalist societies, increased the allure of totally planned societies.

Marxism also had a “scientific” appeal (really, a pseudo-scientific one since it was not open to validation or disproof in the same manner as theories in the physical sciences it wished to ape; special reasons could always be advanced for why the history of economies and political developments did not follow Marx’s highly deterministic pathway — dialectics came in handy here). But most of its intellectual proponents experienced it as a faith more than a set of discursive propositions about man and society which might be contradicted by reality or rational argument. It was a faith that motivated men to particular actions – sometimes heroic, sometimes despicable (always “justifiably so” in the latter case) — in the struggle to establish an imagined Utopia that awaited at “the end of history” as it had been hitherto experienced. And therein – in the actions themselves, viewed as part of the always bothersome “means versus ends” problem – lay its downfall in the minds of its apostates; and presumably its downfall in fact forty years after this book was published. The arc of an intellectual’s life and opinions once he embraced this faith was repeated throughout the satellite states of Eastern and Central Europe – and in China and elsewhere; as different as they were, each of these societies tended to produce the same sort of apostasy based on the same kind of disappointment and disillusionment with “socialism as practiced” in monolithic one-Party states. In the case of the European satellite states the actual structure and practices of Russian communism had been forced upon the various national communist parties, often led by men who had been trained and winnowed in Moscow.

The writers were all aware of inconsistencies between Communism’s ideals and its practice when they joined the Party, but they usually assumed these problems were due to minor human imperfections and/or unique historical circumstances, rather than to the political requirements of the ideals themselves or the nature of the Party. The official view from on-high (as exemplified and sanctioned by Stalin, the wily Father of the Peoples) was that all failures within the Communist world were the result of sabotage, treason, and the tenacious resistance of bourgeois capitalists who served allies and masters abroad. At some point in each of the lives of the six apostates who tell their stories here a cumulative threshold (each man’s was different) was reached, a point beyond which self-deception about the flaws of Communism, its actual stupidities and inadequacies of practice, and its creation of dystopian rather than utopian conditions where it held sway was no longer possible for anyone with a fairly rigorous standard of truth. Dialectics and special pleading could not cover up the glaring flaws of shabby material conditions and the climate of servility, fear and paranoia created by state security services. The self-serving nature of Party loyalty, resulting in the creation of a “new privileged class” of Party hacks and apparatchiks, was equally demoralizing. The “rot” in these societies actually started at the top and insinuated itself into all corners and crevices of everyday life. The threshold of final disillusionment was brought about both by these pervasive conditions within the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and also by events which were very symptomatic of how the new system worked: treason trials (purges) based on trumped-up and incredible charges, including trials and executions of former powerful agents of the Party itself; chronic economic failures; the actual disenfranchising of working class citizens in whose name the Party ruled; the war against the peasantry required by the ideal of collective farming; the battle against all other political forces on the left in the various European nations, especially against Social Democratic parties and against all other parties in the Republican coalition during the Spanish Civil War; and, a last straw, the cynical Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, an agreement between two traditional Great Powers to slice up a neighboring small state and expand their zones of influence.

Richard Crossman, eventually a Labour Minister and an old-fashioned democratic socialist of the British Labour Party, supplies an excellent concise introduction to the book. As Koestler points out, during the post-World War II era, ex-Communists were afflicted with many of the same psychological conflicts that afflict ex-Roman Catholics, who often experience a sort of life-long hangover from the intensity of their former faith. This frequently requires them to veer 180 degrees in their political opinions; they also have to endure the public scorn of their former comrades and allies, a painfully depressing experience. In spite of the temptations of being embraced within a new and similarly cultic comradeship, Koestler believes it dangerous for a former Party member to become merely a “professional ex-Communist” often allied to a society’s most conservative forces, to the exclusion of actual rational examination of civilization’s problems and how they may be addressed in a democratic and humane fashion. In terms of the personal motives for joining the Party the most revealing stories are those of Wright and Silone, each of whom was reacting to local conditions of life (including local rationalizations of extreme brutality towards one’s fellow man) which made the Party the most attractive force for change.

The themes of this book have been given excellent and vivid renderings in the fiction of dissent that emerged in Russia and its satellite states (especially Czechoslovakia, perhaps the most doctrinaire of these states) during the 1960s. The qualitative differences between the accounts in Crossman’s book and those of the later literature of dissent in Communist societies stem from the fact that the writers of the anthology lived beyond the pale of the post-war Iron Curtain, allowing them the luxury of public dissent and departure from the Party. This may have been a personally wrenching decision but it was one which would have had much more serious – often lethal – consequences farther east; the “inescapable” nature of the system into which whole generations were born (rather than freely chose, as the six writers did) adds an intense and pervasive melancholy to the literature of dissent that could not be duplicated elsewhere. In France or Italy a dissenting ex-Communist might be snubbed or vilified in the left-wing press. In the Communist societies a well-known dissenting intellectual could wind up in the Gulag, the mines, or, at times of stress, on the gallows; after 1960 or thereabouts he or she would become a non-person, deprived of work and decent housing. The phrase encapsulated in the book’s title will continue to be an appropriate one whenever a dominant ideology crumbles due to its own inconsistencies or glaring discrepancies between its ideals and its practice. The psychological attractions of all-embracing creeds and movements are undermined by the unattainability of their goals – the further the goal recedes, the more ludicrous become the fictions used to prop up sagging faith in it; apostasy is inevitable and constitutes a restoration of sanity and self-dignity.


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