Communism, the great fraud of the 20th century, was the Ponzi scheme of ideologies, a con game that lived as long as its lies were believed but collapsed when the truth became clear to everyone. This week, remembering the destruction of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, we commemorate the end of a monstrous, murderous swindle.
It was an empire of illusion that began as the fantasy of intellectuals and ended in the hands of police thugs. The founders were dreamers who understood little about humanity and less about issues on which they lectured interminably, such as the means of production. They promised equality, the abolition of private ownership and an economy managed by wise social scientists. If people had trouble living in such a system, communism would change human nature, beginning with New Soviet Man.
The three things the Soviet Union did well were unmentioned, for obvious reasons, at its birth: nuclear weapons, space exploration and the Second World War, which the Soviets won against the better-armed, better-trained Germans. In everything else, from farming to consumer products, the communists were colossal failures.
Even so, many westerners believed they were making progress, just as official propaganda claimed. And yet it seemed to me, on visits to Warsaw, Budapest and Moscow, that anyone could tell at a glance that the system wasn't working. In 1982 East Berlin was communism's showplace; you could see busloads of people from distant Asiatic corners of the USSR visiting East Berlin as a treat. But half an hour in a grocery store was enough to convince me that even East Berlin was crippled by managerial incompetence.
Constructing the Berlin Wall was a historic blunder, typical of literal-minded party bosses who had no feel for symbolism. In 1961 they must have imagined they were cleverly solving a problem, the tendency of East Germans to leave for better lives elsewhere. Instead, they provided a powerful bricks-and-mortar demonstration of all that was hateful in communism. The ideology that began as the salvation of the workers was admitting that it could control them only by force.
Leszek Kolakowski, one of the most articulate critics of Marxism, said "the lie is the immortal soul of communism." Marxist leaders depended on lying to their subjects, to the outside world and especially to themselves. Communism became a paradise for amateurs, political bosses who believed in their own ill-formed knowledge and discovered that the threat of prisons and firing squads conveyed legitimacy on whatever crazy ideas they uttered.
Stalin discoursed learnedly, as he thought, on genetics. Mao, ignorant of metallurgy, decreed during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961 that millions of farmers would solve the national steel shortage by smelting in small backyard furnaces. They produced low-quality pig iron but that didn't dim Mao's belief that he knew better about such things than specialists. For helpless individuals in much of the communist world, it was like living under the direction of the village crackpot.
Enemies from within and without finally brought it tumbling down.
Brave dissidents in Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere demanded the expansion of freedom at the same time that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher applied pressure on Moscow and Pope John Paul II acted as counsellor and cheerleader to his fellow Poles. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was obviously leaning toward a liberalized communism.
But China leap-frogged far to the right of the Soviets by adopting a market economy. Suddenly everything about the old Leninist system of economics looked archaic.
In the last years, roughly from Reagan's first inauguration in 1981 to 1989, the managers supervising various communist franchises knew they couldn't survive much longer. They were playing out the string, making their final years in power last as long as possible. Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet foreign minister under Gorbachev (and later the president of Georgia), took the events of 1989 quite calmly. He had known all along that the system had to collapse and people like him would lose their jobs. "Our empire was doomed," he told his chief advisor. "But we did not think it would come so soon."
Todor Zhivkov, one of the great survivor-dictators of the century, maintained his job as first secretary of the Bulgarian communist party from 1954 to 1989, adroitly switching his policies from rigid to easygoing, then back again, whenever the mood changed in Moscow. When his world collapsed he was asked if he had maintained his Marxist-Leninist beliefs to the end of his 35-year reign. He answered: "Do you take me for an idiot?"