From Communism to Populism and the tolerance of the intellectuals

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)



Over the past years an increasing number of countries around the world, populist leaders, political parties and movements have gained prominence and influence, either by electoral successes on their own or by influencing other political parties and the national political discourse. It is widely acknowledged that the media and the role of communication more broadly are key to understanding the rise and success of populist leaders, parties and movements. There is however very little research on populist political and how it has evolved from the old communist parties to the current populist ones.

Their common framework is based on a meaningful emptiness’ ideology in which to store items from the left or right political spectrum, in dependence of the party or its leader’ convenience. But more important than the doctrinaire body or the charismatic leader it is overall the communication. Populism is defined as “A communication framework which identify and appeals to the People which claims to represent”. It refers to simple messages in a binary ‘good and bad’ code, and it is massively reproduced in the media, especially in “tabloid TV’s” or digital papers. But when analysing deeply its ideology and history, it has a real analogy with the former communist parties.

It portraits an absurd counter bar speech or a university rally, but it recalls one of the most shameful parts of the twentieth-century’ thought: The Western intellectuals’ tolerance to Communism.

A few years ago, I saw on the Spanish TV an interview, which had been recorded while Franco was still alive, to Aleksandr Soltzhenitsyn the Russian author who wrote “The Gulag Archipelago”, which recounted his personal experience in those ‘Soviet re-education institutions’. The Russian writer and Nobel Literature Prize stated, “You have escaped from this experience, maybe forever or perhaps just for the time being. You do not know what communism is about. Your progressist political circles named dictatorship to the existing political regime in Spain. But I took ten days traveling through Spain. I travel anonymously, observing life, looking with my eyes. And I have wondered: Do you really know what is a dictatorship, what is the meaning of that word? Do you understand what a terror dictatorship is? “. And he began to give examples and compare: “Spaniards are not tied to their residence place; the Spaniards are free to travel abroad; I have seen foreign newspapers on newsstands; I saw private business; I saw photocopiers business…”

 The Spanish writer Juan Benet wrote in reaction to that interview: “I firmly believe that as long as people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are around, the concentration camps must endure and will endure. Perhaps they should better be guarded so that of people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, while not acquiring a better education, could not go outside. ” And so many intellectuals thought alike at the moment, not so far away in time.

The admired Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Literature Nobel Prize in 1971, was a lover of the more terrible totalitarianism of the twentieth century. I guess those responsible for granting the Literature Nobel Prize, the same ones who denied the award to Borges because he collected an award in Pinochet’s Chile, should appreciate that qualifying the Soviet Union as the “Mother of the free”, considering the “West as a dump”, and calling on “killing to all those who denounce Bolshevism”, meant some merits at the time of their choice. I guess among the people blessed with the Stalinist peace which Neruda referred were included Korea, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria or Poland.

Stalin, in his quiet way, has entered in the History accompanied by Lenin and the wind. (…) Stalin is the noon, the man and the People’ matureness“. Ode to Stalin, by Pablo Neruda.

As Neruda, I cannot fail to mention to Jean-Paul Sartre, Gunther Grass, Jose Saramago, Simone de Beauvoir, Dario Fo or Rafael Alberti, most of them playing the subterranean role of Stalin’s propaganda agents: Ernest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, André Malraux, Maxim Gorky, and Andre Gide are among a host of great writers and intellectuals who were agents of Soviet propaganda.

By comparison I would like to mention to Vassili Grossman. Grossman could not write an autobiography with such a pompous title as “I confess that I lived” because, unlike Neruda, his life was an ache: battlefield after battlefield, from death camp to death camp, with its mother disappeared in a Nazi’ massacre in Ukraine and always badly paid when paid.

But Grossman was a conscious man and his last two novels, “Life and Fate” and especially “Forever Flowing” written in the third person, he showed awareness of his own blindness in failing about recognizing the evil. Vassili Grossman in “Forever Flowing” gives a lesson when comparing the crimes committed against the kulaks vs. those crimes of the Nazis, although he was Jewish and the Nazis killed his beloved mother. His memory evokes compassion and pain and I admit that was a guide to not close our eyes to the truth.

The Stalinism’ victory inflicted a great suffering, continued repression and terror in Central, Eastern Europe and the USSR over the following 40 years. At the outbreak of the revolution in 1917, Lenin needed an elite who would support the new state creation. During the early years of the twentieth century, the excited intellectuals launched a powerful propaganda machine. The Soviet state used it until the moment when Stalin ordered to silence any creative whim.

From there, the lives of millions of people were sentenced and mowed under crimes such as ‘enemies of the people, spies, or agents of foreign intelligence’. The intellectuals who supported Stalin took without any awareness the way to their disappearance, such as Boris Pliniak, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Bulgakov, or Isaak Babel among many others. In the late thirties, Stalin’s purges, the processes that took place in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, left five million prisoners, detained seven million and 5 million deaths. Only during the Ukrainian famine (1936-1938) died more Ukrainians than Jews died in the Nazi camps. The list of Stalin’ victims of terror was too long, 23 million victims. Only Mao Zedong, with 78 million dead, has surpassed him.

Does anyone remember where were those poets or intellectuals who wrote something similar about Hitler or Mussolini? Did they receive tribute and memories or are they the dung heap of the forgotten? This cultural hypocrisy, or this far left’ stupid nostalgia is quite sad and irritant. How is it possible that the Nazi party has been banned in Germany and the Communist party is not yet banned in so many countries? This question should embarrass the world.

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