How Prometheus Became Procrustes

Culture - November 11, 2021

Thirty years ago, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The West had won the Cold War…

At the annual meeting of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience on 11–13 November 2021 in Prague I was asked to give the keynote paper on the events of 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, with several new countries coming into being. I used the opportunity to argue that Stalinism (and Maoism as well) were logical outcomes of the communist project because it involved imposing an intellectual construction on unwilling or at least reluctant people. I see nothing wrong with you choosing to become a communist, if you are willing to be a communist just for yourself and not for other people: Then you simply enter a collective farm such as the Israeli kibbutzim or you establish a worker’s cooperative with your soulmates. The only requirements are that you do not force others to go there with you, and that you have the possibility of exit no less than that of entry. In this sense communism is a natural experiment, and it turns out that only a very small and quite insignificant part of any community really wants it.

Why Communism Inevitably Means Enslavement

Since communists do not accept this and want instead to impose their project on others, they are bound to use violence. In the process, communism becomes a criminal undertaking, just like Hitler’s national socialism. It simply cannot sustain itself without systematic suppression of individual aspirations and ends. The main argument is not that communists are morally or intellectually inferior to others (although this possibility should not be excluded). It is that the system requires evil deeds. In order to see this more clearly, the communist project should be recalled. It is the demand for public ownership of the means of production which implies that a capital market would be abolished. Instead the economy should be governed by central planning, communists say. But this means that economic and political power would be held by the same people. Such a concentration of power is quite dangerous, as many Marxists have indeed recognised. In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation, Trotsky once exclaimed. Another Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, pointed out that in effect freedom is always the freedom to dissent. Who is going to print opposition material if all the printing presses are owned by the state?

But the argument that the concentration of power is dangerous is perhaps not conclusive, however cogent it may be. In his famous Road to Serfdom, Anglo-Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek presented another and even stronger argument for the inevitability of oppression under communism. It is that central planning cannot utilise all the knowledge dispersed among different individuals in an economy. In order to simplify their task, the central planners therefore have to try and change the preferences of individuals, and for this they have to enlist all the forces which can influence and mould the human soul, such as education, art, the media, the judiciary, and even sports. Stalin expressed this idea perceptively when he said that under communism writers had to be ‘engineers of the soul’. Again, not only must the communist rulers try to ensure obedience of the masses by all means possible, they also have to remove dissidents, doubters, critics, opponents, or, as they would themselves say, saboteurs.

The Evil Figure from Mount Korydallos

Marx’ favourite figure from Greek mythology was Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and used it to give to mankind technology, knowledge and indeed civilisation in general. Marx undoubtedly saw himself as a modern Prometheus. But in reality he was more like another figure from Greek mythology, Procrustes, the evil host of Mount Korydallos on the sacred way from Athens and Eleusis. Procrustes had a bed in which he invited passers-by to spend the night. If they were too short for the bed, he stretched them with his appliances. If they were too long for the bed, he amputated them. Everybody had to fit the bed. This is what the planners under communism have to do. Individuals must fit the plan, or die, or starve. It cannot be the other way around because no single plan can fit all individuals, for the reason Hayek explained, the dispersal of knowledge. In a free society, individuals are all allowed to pursue their own plans, and the task of government is simply to ensure that they do not violate the rights of others in this pursuit. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

It was the system that failed, not necessarily the people chosen to implement it. However, it is as unlikely that humanitarians win power struggles in communist countries as that compassionate persons become whipping masters on slave plantations. If a system requires evil deeds, it will reward evil men. In his reckoning with Stalinism, Nikita Khruschev tried to shift blame from Lenin to Stalin by invoking the ‘personality cult’. But the record shows that Lenin was just as cruel as Stalin. For example, as a young man in 1891 he protested against a collection for the victims of a famine in the regions around Volga. Things had to get worse, Lenin argued, so that they could get better. When Lenin had recently seized power, he sent a notorious telegramme to his comrades in Penza, on 11 August 1918: ‘Comrades! The insurrection of five kulak districts should be pitilessly suppressed. The interests of the whole revolution require this because “the last decisive battle” with the kulaks is now underway everywhere. An example must be made. 1) Hang (absolutely hang, in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, fatcats, bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Seize all grain from them. 4) Designate hostages.’ Lenin was a Procrustean just like Stalin.

Procrustes is Still Around

It was this Procrustean system which fell when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I have described elsewhere how I was woken up by my friend, David Oddsson, Iceland’s Prime Minister, in the wee hours of 19 August when the first news about the coup attempt by hardline communists appeared in the West. We were unsurprisingly very concerned. When it became clear a day or two later that the attempt had failed, the Baltic countries seized the opportunity and reaffirmed their independence, proclaimed in 1918. Their position was of course that they had never joined the Soviet Union voluntarily and legally. They were simply occupied by the Red Army. Oddsson, a strong anti-communist who had as a young law student translated into Icelandic a book about the Soviet oppression of Estonia, immediately decided, in cooperation with his Foreign Minister, Jon B. Hannibalsson, an equally firm opponent of communism, to renew diplomatic relations with the Baltic states. Iceland was the first country to do so.

In retrospect, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was not a foregone conclusion. It was an opportunity which suddenly presented itself and which the Baltic countries and other territories under Soviet tutelage used. Hayek’s argument was not that communist regimes could not survive. It was, rather, that central economic planning would never be able to achieve its stated goals and that oppression on a massive scale was inevitable if the planners were to remain in power. The Russian communist elite was however a house divided. It had suddenly confronted firm and determined opponents in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and it was clear that the Soviet Union lacked the resources to win the arms race with the United States. The Russian elite had lost faith in itself, and many of its members wanted to avoid a bloodbath. It could not follow the example of the Chinese Communist Party and save itself by reintroducing capitalism at the same time as no political opposition was allowed. Now, the Chinese communists seem to think that the West is doomed. They are renouncing capitalism and seem to be willing to impose their will not only on their subjects but also on their neighbours. Their renunciation of capitalism will cost them dear, but if they are willing and able to use sufficient force, they may hang on to power. In 1991, the West won a resounding victory. But new challenges are presenting themselves. Procrustes is still around.