July 6, 2021

One of the more egregious failures on the part of educators on both sides of the Atlantic over the past 50 years has been their omitting to teach several generations of young people about the communist regimes of the 20thcentury. Now I understand that classroom time is limited, and that these days especially it is very important to decolonise Peppa Pig or whatever, but even so.

That the systems that held entire populations captive, and which enslaved and killed millions, and were run by little men who were worshipped as gods, are deemed too trivial to study is really quite remarkable.

Indeed, if you ask Google “do they teach about communism in schools?” the results on the first page will consist mainly of archival and scholarly papers about educational programmes during the 1950 and 60s. Well, those and some much more recent articles about Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who in late June signed a Bill mandating that all high school students must learn about “political ideologies such as communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States.”

Why now? Speaking at a press conference in a middle school, DeSantis attacked teachers who praise Mao Zedong and denounced Che Guevara as a “total communist thug” before adding “We’re going to be pushing back on a lot of the whitewashing that’s been done.”

Lenin, of course, would instruct us to ask cui prodestDeSantis is a Republican who has many Cuban immigrants in his state, not to mention voters who have escaped other Latin American leftist regimes, so attacking communism is certainly good politics in Florida. But at the press conference DeSantis was careful not to frame the study of communism in purely historical terms. He also gave space to Ana Bouza, who fled the Sandinistas in Nicaragua at age 16, escaping at first to Venezuela, before moving again to Florida — only to have her granddaughter inform her one day that socialism was “not… that bad.” DeSantis himself is only 42, and so was two years old when uber cold warrior Ronald Reagan was elected. It seems, therefore, that his concern is that ideas once thought confined to the dustbin of history might yet have some life in them and be at risk of spreading.

He is not necessarily wrong. A decade on from the Communist Party USA’s enthusiastic embrace of Occupy Wall Street, the acceptance of “socialism” in America as something non-radioactive continues to advance. A Gallup survey in 2019 found that socialism was as popular as capitalism among young adults, while Bernie Sanders, who did not shy away from the term, was the last of Biden’s challengers to drop out of the Democratic Party presidential primaries. DeSantis himself has young daughters, so perhaps he is worried that the day is coming when they read the glowing profile of Rosa Luxemburg in Teen Vogue, then run away to join the LARPing kombucha-drinking revolutionaries in America’s whitest big city.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if some aspects of the so-called Great Awokening that caught so many observers off-guard might not have been so surprising had more people known something about radical left regimes of the 20th century. Much has been made of the parallels between last year’s summer of statue-toppling iconoclasm and China’s Cultural Revolution, but that is only one example.

If you have even a cursory familiarity with the history of the USSR and its satellite regimes, you will not be shocked when self-proclaimed progressives turn out to be censorious prudes fearful of ideas, nor will you be amazed when liberals fail to defend their principles and go along with things that they don’t believe, “hiding, for [their] job’s sake, the rattle of bones”, to quote Aleksandr Blok. Nor would you be surprised to learn that Left-wing authoritarianism exists, contra the parochial studies seeking to prove otherwise.

That said, I am not sure that a pure focus on hardline totalitarian communism is necessarily the best way to educate people about the false promises of bogus utopias. As Czeslaw Milosz observed, people take the reality they live in as something “natural” and “cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with a lasso.”

Thus were I to design a curriculum, I would certainly teach about Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, but I would also teach about the herbivorous phases of socialist regimes, when they were working as well as they ever did — and yet still there were shortages of the most mediocre goods, and people were still forbidden to travel abroad or listen to foreign radio stations, and religious believers were still subjected to crude propaganda, and there were still armies of snitches informing on their neighbours, and a cassette copy of Deep Purple’s In Rock that had been taped and retaped hundreds of times over was a precious commodity that could make you the envy of all your friends. (In fairness, I would also teach that in these conditions of bad government and permanent shortages, solidarity and kindness between individuals can flourish.)

And none of this is to include, say, the successes and failures of post-war socialist parties in Western Europe. But even if DeSantis emphasises the excesses of communism at its worst, that is a great improvement on what we have had up to this moment, which is pretty much nothing. My main critique of this law is that it is required at all; but Florida also has a law mandating the study of the Holocaust, so this is not an innovation. The classroom is not the public square, and governments can and do decide what is taught in them. Indeed, DeSantis may have started a trend — hot on the heels of his press conference, the Arizona House voted in favor of a similar bill.

And yet, I wonder if this moment when some students in America start learning about communism might not also mark the moment when the subject jumps the shark. American elites have long treated anything that smacks of “anti-communism” as terribly déclassé, thanks to the legacy of McCarthy, and there is a strong whiff of that in the coverage of DeSantis’ bill on purported news site The Daily Beast, which ran a story with the headline Florida Guv’s School Crackdown is a Red Scare Throwback.

In addition, the fact that this type of bill was pioneered not just by any Republican governor, but by DeSantis, who is a staple of hate-click media content targeted at progressive audiences, means that it is all but guaranteed to be sucked into America’s uber-degraded culture war discourse. At the same press conference where DeSantis announced that young people in Florida were going to be learning about communism, he also spoke about two other bills — one related to civics education, and another which requires public universities to “annually assess intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on campus. The first of these was not very controversial, but the second certainly was, and DeSantis also signed an early law banning “Critical Race Theory” or CRT in schools, which was even more so.

Now you would think that reasonable people on both sides of the political aisle might be able to agree that teaching children to think of themselves as oppressor and oppressed on the basis of their skin colour, or to use curricular materials where “whiteness” is depicted as a pact with Satan (to pick just two examples), is more than slightly batshit, and likely to do more harm than good. But when other Republican-controlled legislatures followed DeSantis’ lead and banned CRT, the debate over the extent of extreme wokeism in education and whether simply banning it is the most effective response got sucked into the polarisation vortex and rapidly degenerated into the moronic inferno of culture war kayfabe.

Media workers at progressive corporate content mills argued that since little children were not literally studying the works of theorists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, the parents railing against CRT across the country were all Fox News-hypnotised racists who in truth just wanted to ban all discussion of slavery and Jim Crow, etc. Even by the standards of today’s American media, with its epic 29% trust rating, it was quite the display of gaslighting. Some valiant souls attempted to study the laws on their merits, but they were few and far between.

And so I fear that if bills requiring students to study the history of communism do catch on among Republican-held state legislatures, you can rest assured that the same media workers will rush to boost their detumescent ratings with hot takes denouncing DeSantis as the new McCarthy.

Meanwhile your more elite click chasers will commission solemn editorials from academics comparing Evil Conservatives to Putin, and Twitter will light up with long threads arguing for a more nuanced take on Stalin, who beat Hitler and was also “a great listener and collaborator during discussions.” And besides, isn’t America uniquely evil because racism and Trump? Meanwhile, Right-wingers will start arguing that socialised healthcare leads directly to the Gulag.

Of course, in communist regimes even this degraded level of debate would be inconceivable, so perhaps I should be grateful? Even so, I fear that the Culture War is rotting more brains than the Cold War ever did. What is to be done, indeed?