Studying Communism

Students at Deakin in interested in wars, Australia and the Two World Wars is a popular subject, they are fascinated by Nazis as well so The Holocaust is a popular subject. Would students would be interested in the history of communism?  There are the recent books by Archie Brown and Robert Service and also the flawed but valuable Black Book of Communism.  Most of all Kevin McDermott’s argument for the study of Communism is deeply attractive:

why do I write about aspects of the communist past? What do I, and I hope my readers, gain from the experience? For a start, it makes me ponder pretty hard about moral choices. For instance, how would I have acted in situations where it was difficult, if not impossible, to hide behind private facades? Recently I wrote an article about the infamous Rudolf Slánsky´ trial in Prague in November 1952 and I constantly found myself asking: transported back into this world, would I have been a ‘conformist’, noisily clamouring for the death penalty against the ‘traitor’? Or would I have been a ‘dissident’, bravely criticising the stage management of the trial and even the actions of leading Czechoslovak communists (as quite a few Czech citizens did, by the way)? To my shame, I cannot be sure of the answer. And if I had been a ‘conformist’, would this be because I was genuinely convinced of Slánsky´’s guilt, or because I merely followed the baying crowd, or because I expected some personal benefit from my compliance? By bringing these existential dilemmas to the forefront, the writing of twentieth-century communism forces us to reflect on and evaluate the human condition and the varying motivations for individual behaviour. It suggests that humans do not always operate on ‘liberal’, rational and enlightened principles. Above all, perhaps, it teaches us to be extremely mindful of leaping to moral judgements and induces necessary humility before the objects of our study – ‘ordinary’ men and women often living under intolerable physical and psychological strain, of which we can have little, if any, real comprehension.

Those engaged in more mundane politics could benefit by this, even  those in student politics. On this topic a recent Pew Publication comparing public opinion in 19991 and 2009 finds substantial but minority nostalgia for Communism:

While the current polling finds a broad endorsement for the demise of communism, reactions vary widely among and within countries. In east Germany and the Czech Republic, there is considerable support for the shift to both a multiparty system and a free market economy. The Poles and Slovaks rank next in terms of acceptance. In contrast, somewhat fewer Hungarians, Bulgarians, Russians and Lithuanians say they favor the changes to the political and economic systems they have experienced, although majorities or pluralities endorse the changes. Ukraine is the only country included in the survey where more disapprove than approve of the changes to a multiparty system and market economy.

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