It’ll be 60 years this month since Nikita Khrushchev blew the whistle on (the safely deceased) Josef Stalin’s crimes. And while the revelations were no surprise to savvy observers, it was a punch in the gut for many true believers and fellow travellers, particularly in the West. What they’d fondly imagined as a Marxist utopia turned out to have been a horse of an entirely different colour.
Khrushchev delivered his reckoning to the delegates at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party on February 25, 1956, and the ripples quickly spread. As historian John Lewis Gaddis puts it, the speech “pulled down the façade – the product of both terror and denial – that had concealed the true nature of the Stalinist regime from the Soviet people and from practitioners of communism throughout the world.”
Like Mikhail Gorbachev three decades further on, Khrushchev’s motivation wasn’t destructive. Rather than upending communism, he sought to preserve and refurbish it. However, for a system that proclaimed historical inevitability and freedom from error, candour wasn’t a natural fit.
There were also those who bluntly rejected the idea of de-Stalinization, China’s Mao Zedong being one of them. While Stalin and Mao hadn’t been close, Mao saw the Stalinist model as a useful vehicle for consolidating his own revolution. Khrushchev may have denounced Stalin’s cult of personality, but Mao fancied putting his own personal version into practice. And that’s what he did, with disastrous results.
If Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture resulted in millions of 1930s deaths, Mao’s delusionary Great Leap Forward considerably upped the ante. In an act of ideological vanity facilitated by arrest quotas for those who were insufficiently enthusiastic, he set out to transform late 1950s China into an industrial powerhouse driven by backyard steel-producing furnaces. In the process, agricultural production fell sharply and an estimated 30 million people starved to death.
Meanwhile, Khrushchev’s tell-all generated varied reactions amongst the faithful in the West. Some were genuinely shocked to discover that utopia was an illusion and duly severed their ties with the Communist Party. Other reactions were more mixed.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo privately acknowledged that he’d suspected as much all along. Folk singer Pete Seeger took several decades to acknowledge that he’d been snookered by Stalin. And noted Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm remained an unrepentant apologist to the end of his life.
The sociologist Paul Hollander has coined the phrase political pilgrims to describe the curious phenomenon whereby intelligent, and allegedly progressive, people pay homage to distant dictators. It’s as if some combination of dissatisfaction with their own society and wilful confirmation bias draw them to alternative social models. In effect, they fall in love.
Interestingly, there’s limited capacity to learn from past disappointments. When Khrushchev’s revelations tainted the Stalinist model, places like Mao’s China and Fidel Castro’s Cuba took its place.
And the timing can be downright bizarre. In the case of both the Soviet Union and China, the romance was most intense during the period of maximum regime brutality. Perhaps the pilgrims got a charge from the assertion of raw power!
Then there was the matter of Khrushchev’s challenges. Having let the genie out of the bottle, he had to scramble to remain in control of events in Eastern Europe. And eventually, drastic measures were deployed.
Poland was the first test. After the local Communist Party displayed some independence by bringing back Wladyslaw Gomulka without first getting approval, Khrushchev threatened them with Soviet troops. Gomulka, though, was a good communist, so Moscow accepted the new government.
Hungary, however, got way out of control. Removing the Stalinist Matyas Rakosi in July, 1956, didn’t do the pacification trick, and Budapest was in open revolt by late October. For the briefest of moments, it even appeared that the rebellion was going to succeed and a newly independent Hungary would be allowed to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
Initially, Khrushchev hesitated, but the prospect of a neutral Hungary was perhaps too much to bear. So the Red Army, which had been previously withdrawn, re-entered Budapest on November 4. Within a week, it was all over.
Although Nikita Khrushchev may have wished to give communism a human face, he soon discovered that a system built on coercion requires regular booster shots. Stalin, on the other hand, knew that instinctively.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.