The Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky once described Stalinism as “the perfect theory for glueing up the brain.” What he meant to dramatize was the fact that a regime as monstrous as Stalin’s, which murdered 40 million people and enslaved many times more, was nonetheless able to persuade progressives and “social justice” advocates all over the world to act as its supporters and defenders. These enlightened enablers of Stalin’s crimes included leading intellectuals of the day, even Nobel Prize winners in the sciences and the arts like Frederic Joliot-Curie and Andre Gide. Brilliant as they were, they were blind to the realities of the Stalinist regime and therefore of the virtues of the societies they lived in.
What glued up their brains was the belief that a brave new world of social justice – a world governed by progressive principles – existed in embryo in Soviet Russia, and had to be defended by any means necessary. As a result of this illusion, they put their talents and prestige at the service of the totalitarian enemies of democracy, acting, in Trotsky’s words, as “frontier guards” for the Stalinist empire. They continued their efforts even after the Soviets conquered Eastern Europe, acquired nuclear weapons and initiated a “cold war” with the West. To the progressives seduced by Stalinism, democratic America represented a greater evil than the barbaric police states of the Soviet bloc. Even half a century later a progressive culture still refers to the formative phase of the Cold War as years of a “Red Scare” – as though the fifth column of American progressives whose loyalties were to the Soviet enemy, whose members included Soviet spies, was not a matter of serious concern, and as though a nuclear-armed, rapacious Soviet empire did not pose a credible threat.
How were these delusions of otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people possible? How were otherwise informed individuals able to deny the obvious and support the most brutal and oppressive dictatorship in history? How did they come to view a relatively humane, decent, democratic society like the United States as evil, while regarding the barbarous communist regime as its victim? The answer lies in the identification of Marxism with the promise of social justice and the institution of progressive values, which will take place in a magical socialist future. Defense of the progressive idea trumped recognition of the reactionary fact.
Once the Stalin regime was identified with the imaginary progressive future, everything followed – its status as a persecuted victim, and its adversary’s role as a reactionary force standing in the way of the noble aspiration. Every fault of the Stalin regime, every crime it committed if not denied by progressives was attributed to the nefarious actions of its enemies, most glaringly the United States. Once a promise of redemption is juxtaposed to an imperfect real world actor, all of these responses become virtually inevitable. Hence the glueing of the brain.
Our country is at a perilous crossroads, one that is made immeasurably more dangerous by a treacherous national party, which blames its own country for the crimes of its enemies, and by a political opposition too feckless and timid to hold its fellow citizens accountable for their treasonous acts.