When a book that offers intentional homage to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital becomes the bestselling nonfiction book in America, it says something about how far we’ve come from the anti-Communist mentality once shared by Democrats, Republicans and all of our nation’s political elites, if not all of our intellectual elites.
Unthinkable as it might have been twenty-five years ago when the Berlin Wall came down, we are witnessing a Marxist moment, evident not just in many Americans’ enthusiasm for an unapologetic Marxist manifesto like Piketty’s Capital, but also in other countries’ embrace of communism and willful amnesia about communism’s history. The speed and enthusiasm with which Marxism has entered mainstream popular thought appears to have caught many in the West unprepared. So much so that we still seem to be unaware of its brewing consequences.
The recent disputes over Thomas Piketty’s glaring errors and misattribution of statistics to bolster his case in favor of wealth redistribution miss the point entirely. Piketty’s Capital is the best selling book in America. It has been selling so quickly that Amazon.com, the largest bookstore in the history of the world, ran out of copies of the French economist’s book for days.
To call Capital a phenomenon would be an understatement. Piketty has been welcomed by the Council of Economic Advisers, the General Accounting Office, the International Monetary Fund, and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew). And this despite Piketty’s unreserved embrace for wealth redistribution that would have been music to the ears of Karl Marx. The book cites Marx 19 times; it praises the “Soviet experiment” for unshackling capitalism’s “chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth.” Even the book’s title is an intentional homage to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. For Piketty, taxation is not about funding government—it’s the ultimate tool for leveling society.
Capital’s success is no aberration. In fact, the resurrection of Marxism and its ideological offspring, Communism, has been a growing, if subtle, threat for some time. .
Even in the Czech Republic, one of the most enthusiastically pro-Western nations to emerge form the Iron Curtain, the Communist Party is staging a troubling comeback and is now the third-largest parliamentary bloc in the Czech Chamber of Deputies. Their growing influence is seen, for example, in the recent hijacking of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes—the official institution charged with keeping the Communist era records of Czechoslovakia and digitizing them for the public’s good. The institute’s new government-appointed leadership included five former members of the Communist Party from the 1980s, including some who even taught mandatory ideological indoctrination courses at the local university. Thus infiltrated, the Institute has scrapped its digitization project of Communist era files.
In China, of course, thousands of dissidents remain imprisoned in Gulag-style, slave labor camps known as the laogai while Western leaders clamor to support the Beijing regime. In North Korea, masses starve as the leadership builds nuclear weapons. In Cuba, dissidents are routinely imprisoned for peacefully petitioning for democratic reform. The people of these countries, as well as Laos and Vietnam, remain captives of corrupt governments established by communist leaders who justified injustice with communist ideology.
This year, Cuban-trained forces in Venezuela have used ruthless tactics to violently suppress peaceful protestors in Caracas. The long arm of communism reached Leopoldo López, leader of the opposition in Venezuela, who was recently convicted in a secret kangaroo court for inciting riots and for the murder of protestors who were actually killed by pro-government forces. Cuba is helping to quash Venezuelans’ democratic aspirations and protect the corrupt, authoritarian government headed by Nicolás Maduro, successor to Hugo Chavez. Meanwhile, the Communist Party is now part of President Dilma Rousseff’s governing coalition in Brazil—South America’s largest country. It is no coincidence that each of these nations has cordial relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Mr. Putin is no communist ideologue but the unreconstructed spymaster has deftly coopted the support of Communist Party voters with his belligerent Soviet-style rhetoric and foreign policy adventurism. During the Sochi Olympics’ opening ceremony, Putin whitewashed communism’s history of mass starvations and gulag camps in favor of festively costumed actors dancing and driving around in beautiful luxury cars with the dreaded images of a hammer and a sickle hovering serenely, powerfully overhead. The West’s failure to man the moral barricades during the Olympics quickly morphed into our material failure to curb Putin’s retaliatory actions against the Ukrainian people when they rejected continued dependence on Moscow. There was no real consequence when Putin quickly invaded and annexed Crimea, and western governments remain divided over how to respond, even as Putin carries out covert operations in eastern Ukraine—threatening to divide the country. According to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “President Putin has a dream to restore the Soviet Union and every day he goes further and further.”
We may not be entering a new Cold War, but the ideological confrontation between the democratic rule of law and the arbitrary will of the ruler is still a confrontation of ideas—one that has real-life consequences for many millions of people. Thomas Piketty’s Capital has provided powerful propagandistic ammunition to neo-Marxists in that battle of ideas, and it is a sad testament to society’s short memory of communism’s horrors that Capital is the best-selling book in the nation. Its appeal shows that communism is anything but a discredited ideology gasping its last breaths. A generation ago, that was a happy thought. It is now a dangerous illusion.
Marion Smith is Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.