The unbelievers were delighted, and as for believers, there were some among them who were even more delighted than the unbelievers themselves….
What happened was that an odor of corruption began to come from the coffin, growing more and more perceptible…. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Readers may recall the shocked grief and revulsion of Alyosha Karamazov as he discovered that the corpse of his saintly master, Father Zossima, was stinking. The collective reaction after Stalin’s death was both less sudden and more traumatic. Nearly three years elapsed after the funeral before the believers were told by Khrushchev, the official keeper of the shrine, that their demigod had not been as holy as he had been painted. On February 23, twenty-five years after Khrushchev’s revelations, the Soviet Communist Party will hold its twenty-sixth Congress. Whatever takes place in the Kremlin hall, we are in the twilight of the Brezhnev era. Once Khrushchev lifted the coffin lid, the odor began to spread, affecting party members and fellow travelers, sympathizers and mere onlookers. It was to change the moral climate of politics. The shock may prove salutary in the long run, even if it has not so far. Indeed, not unsuccessful efforts have been made to present the stench of decaying Stalinism as the natural smell of socialism and in this way to discredit Marxism, revolution, or the very idea of resistance to the established order.
Macaulay once claimed that there is no spectacle more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality. He obviously had not seen successive generations of leftists cursing their former gods and damning what they had worshipped. Let me hasten to add that learning from past mistakes is a virtue, passion against parties or doctrines that led one astray is perfectly natural, and heretics are the salt of the earth. But periodic bouts of recantation are something quite different. Moral indignation turns into moralizing, converts give the impression of changing bandwagons rather than ideas, and people who rebelled against a gruesome and treacherous orthodoxy in the name of socialist principles trample those very principles to the applause of their new sponsors,
Leaving aside these stage performers making capital out of their conversions, genuine motives for disenchantment have not been missing in the last twenty-five years. The illusions which survived the Soviet invasion of Hungary were shattered when Soviet tanks entered Prague. Hopes raised by China’s Cultural Revolution crashed with the fall of the “Gang of Four.” The atrocities of Kampuchea’s Pol Pot regime, the invasion of Kampuchea by the Vietnamese, and of Vietnam by the Chinese–all this has been too much for a single generation to swallow. And yet it is not enough to explain the current political disarray. After all, previous generations have been submitted to no lesser shocks: the mass purges of the 1930s, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the postwar repetition throughout Eastern Europe of the Moscow trials should have strained the allegiance of the most faithful. The basic difference is that in the meantime millions have ceased to view the Soviet Union as a socialist model.
The discarding of mythical models and the recognition, however belated, of crimes committed in the name of socialism are indispensable steps on the road to recovery. They should be followed by an open and unflinching debate over the causes of the disease and possible remedies. Despite the publicity surrounding spectacular about-faces, however, it cannot be said that critical analysis has gone very far. The keepers of Soviet orthodoxy and their followers, naturally enough, have refused to see the crisis of their model. Disappointment has come from sections of the new generation of alleged rebels. In retrospect, it is possible to see that in chanting “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Lin Piao,” they were as empty and dogmatic as later, when, merely reversing the slogan, they put the blame for the gulag on Marx. These rebels were irrational in both their enthusiasm and their indignation.