To those longing for the days when four years of Yale were still ahead of us, the bright-eyed pre-frosh strolling around campus recently were an endearing sight. Youthful and bubbly, they were a far cry from our pre-reading-week/let-me-begin-my-summer malaise. The inane rallying cries of GESO strikers notwithstanding, Bulldog Days enlivened the Elm City with its throngs of enthusiastic prospective sons and daughters of Eli.
Yet in observing our soon-to-be fellow students, immediately identifiable by those ubiquitous manila envelopes, I noticed something slightly amiss: the bizarre preponderance of communist apparel. In casually walking around campus Monday and Tuesday, I saw no fewer than three pre-frosh wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Che Guevara’s pensive black and white face; another proudly sported the Soviet hammer and sickle.
While hardly evidence of a Red invasion of the Yale campus, the approval of communist emblems as acceptable pop culture icons is nothing short of disturbing. In eulogizing the symbols of communism, angst-plagued teens, aspiring leftists and hipster poseurs celebrate a murderous ideology responsible for over 85 million deaths.
Trying to fit in on a campus known for its liberal activism certainly doesn’t make you a card-carrying member of the Communist Party; in fact, I’d be surprised if any of the Commie-wannabee pre-frosh had ever read a page of Marx or Engels. After all, a true communist is hard to find these days. Marxism discredited itself by its numerous failures at creating socialist governments in the last century. The remaining holdouts — North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam — are peculiar relics of a bygone era, helplessly fighting inevitable collapse. China realized the folly of its Maoist past and embraced capitalism long ago. Even in academia, once the bastion of revolutionary thought in the United States, the number of Marxist professors has dwindled to a few cranks here and there. But in American pop culture, communism is alive and well.
In “The Black Book of Communism,” co-author Stephane Courtois exposes a scale of “class genocide” that he claims rivaled Nazism in its brutality and far surpassed the Holocaust in number of victims. Compared with Hitler’s 25 million deaths over six years, communist dictators (Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung and Pol Pot among the most egregious offenders) were directly responsible for between 85 and 100 million deaths over 80 years. In the ways Nazism systematically dehumanized Jews, Christians, homosexuals and gypsies, communism labeled its opponents “bloodsuckers,” “rich bastards,” “pigs” and “filthy, capitalist dogs.” The purportedly “scientific” basis and infallibility of Marxist thought, like Hitler’s Darwinian racialist theory, fostered totalitarian rule that demanded absolute conformity and the extermination of any rivals.
Apologists for communism often assert that pure Marxism was hijacked by bloodthirsty dictators and never had a fair chance to succeed. This disingenuous argument ignores the fact that Marxist ideology, like Nazism, carried the seeds of authoritarianism and mass murder within it. Like other totalizing ideologies, Marxism required dictatorship and the use of violence as indispensable tools in eliminating the bourgeois class enemies. Engels’ “withering away of the state” after the prophesized proletarian revolution was a fanciful and unrealizable myth; instead, repressive “dictatorships of the proletariat” would forever keep the Marxist dream alive.
Che Guevara is the consummate embodiment of Marxism and everything it stands for: mass murder, injustice and failure. Che’s noble vision of serving the communist revolution was killing hundreds — likely thousands — of “state enemies” in the Cuban jungles as Fidel Castro’s executioner. With the conviction of a true crusader for justice, he believed that “to send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary.” His attempts at fomenting socialist uprisings and fighting bloody insurgent campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia were grand failures that led to his ignominious death.
People have always identified in Che Guevara and Marxist ideology the rebellious idealism of youth and the indomitable courage of the human spirit. The grand (but ultimately empty) promises of equality inspire hope. As Tom Wolfe trenchantly observed in his essay “Radical Chic” about New York elites drawn to the street allure of the Black Panthers, the wealthy are often drawn to revolutionary politics to allay feelings of guilt. Little wonder that privileged hipsters shell out 40 bucks for a Che shirt at faux-vintage clothing stores in SoHo. Others simply misidentify Marxist socialism as a more extreme form of European socialism, which owes nothing to the thought of Marx and Engels.
But “idealism,” “courage” and “equality” were part of the Marxist myth fed to us by the propaganda machines of communist regimes and the Western intellectual elite who willingly did their bidding. Yet the Marxist reality, now revealed to us by a century of communism’s ignoble history, is synonymous with genocide and tyranny. That we are blind to the crimes of communism and the true meaning of Marxism is no longer an excuse.
Marxism was a dark — perhaps the darkest — chapter in human history. Those who still admire the ideology are sullied by the black stain of 85 million deaths. Those who — ignorant of the story behind their beloved leftist icons — sport Che or vintage Communist Party shirts are likewise tainted by tacit approval of unprecedented crimes against humanity.
Displaying a swastika or a poster of the KKK’s Grand Dragon on a dorm wall is considered unacceptable by the standards of modern society, yet somehow, symbols identified with communist mass murder pass the test of political correctness — they’re even “cute” or “kitschy.” But “radical chic” isn’t “cool”; it’s a disgraceful endorsement of humanity’s most appalling atrocities.
Keith Urbahn is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.