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Teach our kids about communism Conservatives want us to learn about the red menace

Literally a bunch of communists. Photo: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images Images

Literally a bunch of communists. Photo: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images Images


July 6, 2021   6 mins

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 prodest? DeSantis 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 dĂ©classĂ©, 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 KimberlĂ© 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?


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

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Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 years ago

The main problem when discussing “socialism” is that it is so poorly defined. I’ve seen it used to describe everything from the Khmer Rouge and the Soviet Gulags, to the Nazis, all the way through to the Norwegians incredibly successful state owned oil fields. Very few of us would want to live in a completely capitalist society, as it would simply turn into a game of Monopoly with a wealthy elite and impoverished masses. By the same token none of us want to live under a communist regime, with its wealthy elite and impoverished masses.
I do agree though that the atrocities committed by communist regimes are vastly understudied in schools. This may be because academia is largely left leaning, and as such has a blind spot towards the damage they caused, in a way that doesn’t exist for the horrors of the Nazis

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“I do agree though that the atrocities committed by communist regimes are vastly understudied in schools. This may be because academia is largely left leaning, and as such has a blind spot towards the damage they caused,”
No, it is Cultural Marxists, that evil school of ‘Post Modernism’ which teaches that all is perception, all is ones experience, that no ultimate truth exists, just relative morality and situational ethics based on your life experiences and perceptions. How you identify is your truth, there is no good and evil, just correct and incorrect. That outcomes must be leveled as opportunities can never be (by the proof that outcomes are unequal – proves opportunity must not be equal, or all would have equal outcomes…..), and that means society is Oppressors and the Oppressed.

Throw in some secular/humanism, existentialism, Nihilism, Solipsism, Marx, and Freud and there it is, the modern thinking. And the modern answer? Tear it down so it can be built back correctly. It is Lord of the Flies.

Society is SICK, that is the issue. Yeats:

ï»ż“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You’re posts are becoming ever more rambling nonsense I must say, you’re starting to veer into the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories.
There’s no doubt that the hard left have undue influence in our universities especially, though I’d wager this has always been the case. The difference being that their ideas never used to leave the walls of their campus, whereas now with many more youngsters going on to further education, along with the amplifying effect of social media which allows a tiny minority to have undue influence it’s started to seep into the real world. Society just has to be ready to push back against all the nonsense such as CRT, which thankfully seems to be the case, as more people become aware of it the less popular it seems to be becoming and is unable to stand up to any real scrutiny

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

That ‘rough beast’ is surely just our primitive, barely evolved human nature – which, as Jung pointed out, must be wrestled with over a lifetime if one is to effect much ‘improvement’. Tragically I dont notice much wrestling going on so human consciousness is struggling in status quo land making only baby steps-probably because somehow it became unacceptable to challenge anyone about anything unless their feeling got hurt. I know that humans only change very slowly but why can I not just accept that reality and not get so pissed off every time i have anything to do with pretty much any human endeavour. I really need help or my wife will get sick of me HELP !!
The point of the rant is that kids dont get taught any real history cos it might make them feel bad so they have NO PERSPECTIVE and later on as adults get their knickers in a twist over pathetic issues…..

Last edited 3 years ago by chris sullivan
James Rix
James Rix
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

This is a great comment Billy. I would argue that socialism is poorly defined by design, for the purpose of almost being all things to all people.
Would you agree however, that socialism is more pre-disposed to veer into authoritarianism?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rix

I’m not sure it’s more pre-disposed to head that way, after all there has been authoritarian regimes on the right as well, such as Pinochet and Franco. I would say however that most leftist regimes that have ended in disaster tended to be more that way inclined to begin with, in that it was a top down ideology imposed on the masses rather than being the will of the people. Violence tended to be the only way they could hold on to power without popular support.
Conservatism by its nature just wants to keep things roughly the same, so it lacks authoritative tendencies to begin with

Last edited 3 years ago by Billy Bob
Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

A Hungarian very left-leaning Social-Democrat, who staunchely resisted in 1948 the merge between the Social-Democrats and Communists and was therefore jailed, described the difference between the two parties as follows: the Social-Democratic Party is a huge brothel, the Communist Party resembles barracks.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Agree – both Capitalism and Socialism are loose terms really.
Thing is they are lumped together as if they are opposing ideologies but that I think is part of the issue. They jar with each other – but one is an economic system, the other a political one.
You can have socialist elements within perfectly functioning capitalist democracies (hello Scandinavia), and in China you can see the reverse. Good and bad (mostly bad in the case of the latter).
Point being they are seen as mutual exclusive ideologies when in fact it’s far more complex than that.

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The historian Dominic Holland argues that the reason we are more forgiving of communism is perhaps because unlike fascism (and especially Nazism) communism continues the cherished Christian virtue of glorifying the poor and the weak, whereas fascism wants to rid the world of human weakness, and as such is a far more revolutionary and hard-to-stomach concept for those of us brought up in the west

simon billing.simon@gmail.com
simon billing.simon@gmail.com
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

It is perhaps better to refer to Stalinist communism or Maoist communism rather than depict the communist regime of Stalin as the inevitable result of pursuing policies based on Marxist philosophy. A bit like saying the Erdogan government is typical of democracy.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Another way to look at it is that actually the Nazis and communists were largely indistinguishable in terms of policies and what they did, but academics and leftists have managed to flood society with material claiming the Nazis were “far right” so they feel it’s OK to teach that, because the ultimate lesson their students will take away is “right wing parties are dangerous”.
I suspect if you forced schools to teach the history of WW2 as an epic struggle against “National Socialism” then the outcry over CRT would start to look like a storm in a teacup.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

The Nazis, especially after the Night of the Long Lives, were essentially in favour of aspects of capitalism.

Maybe that’s why part of the reason they are so much more demonised than their even more effective killer totalitarians, the Communists. This might have meant that some sort of fascist society, had it not been led by a complete fanatic ultimately willing to destroy his own people, could have become stabilised, and more economically effective than Communist societies. I suppose in this respect, rather like modern China….

Also, although the Left claim to be interested in outcomes, evaluating political systems by their supposed claimed ends always holds far more weight with them. A workers’ state (however poor and downtrodden the workers turns out to be) sounds a nicer goal than a racial supremacy one.

Last edited 3 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
3 years ago

You can have a lot of fun with the young “Communism is Awesome” crowd by casually talking about the Holodomor, The Great Leap Forward, the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin’s purges, or gulag forced labor camps. They get really uncomfortable if you start talking about how the CCP is a shameless colonial power in Africa or South East Asia. North Korea does not produce much of a reaction though. Too much recent stand up material from that one.

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
3 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

‘But Matt, they weren’t doing communism right!’ will be the reply. To which you will say, ‘point me to someone who did it properly then’ and they will point to a man in the future, a messiah type figure, the likes of which has never existed before, and they will reference ‘science’ and all sorts of bar charts as evidence of his prophesised arrival, and then they’ll get offended by the face you pull and wont speak to you again

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul Sorrenti
Al M
Al M
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

“To which you will say, ‘point me to someone who did it properly then’ and they will point to a man in the future, a messiah type figure“

In my experience, the reply used to be ‘Hugo Chavez’. I suppose this merely illustrates how long ago I stopped talking to such people.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
3 years ago

I tried playing Devil’s Advocate on this a few years ago with some young students who were convinced “genuine” Communism would solve all the ills of the world – if we could just gloss over its failure every time it has been attempted.
I took the deliberately provocative position of, ‘if only we could try real Fascism, and get it right this time, that would solve society’s problems too’.
Naturally enough they hit back with â€œ… but Hitler
” and “
 but the holocaust …” arguments, as they were absolutely right to do. Yet couldn’t see that if those examples negated any possible justification for Fascism then â€œâ€Š but Stalin
” and â€œâ€Š but the Gulags 
” should do the same for Communism.
Frankly wearing a Che T-shirt or a Hammer & Sickle in public should receive the same horrified response as sporting a swastika or SS symbol would – yet it demonstrably does not.
We’ve even had a Shadow minister, in the shape of the ludicrous Diane Abbott, suggest that “On balance Mao did more good than harm” – sure, if you can just gloss over the murder of 50 million or so!
As ever, the Left manages to absolve its ideology of its sins without ever noticing the utterly indefensible double standard in their thinking.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Saul D
Saul D
3 years ago

I think its fair to look at why ideas about communism emerged from the industrial revolution and movements for social reform that included anti-slavery, votes for all, unions and alms systems that slowly move to social help, cast against the abuses of capitalism by corporate monopolists.
But then from this to look at how taking this to extremes like communism went wrong, and why communism has to become totalitarian to survive – the fundamental flaws of just believing in theoretical solutions that continually fail when they run into practical realities, such as the allocation problem, or the incentive problem. And how this then leads Animal-Farm-like oppression and regime control, with governments spying on every aspect of citizens’ lives, with full on murderous genocides because of a flawed idea that sounds nice in theory.
And from this, that there isn’t a perfection – just continual trade-offs and balances between competing interests. Democracy is the true counterpoint to capitalism – governments as servants of the people, not their controllers.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago

‘Teach our kids about communism: Conservatives want us to learn about the red menace’. Interesting headline. Almost certainly not written by Mr Kalder, I reckon. A number of thoughts pop into mind: is it really only conservatives who want the whole story of communism and socialism taught? Are there people who don’t want the whole story of communism and socialism taught? What story do they want inculcated in the young? Why are the words ‘red menace’ used, which seem mocking and over-the-top? Changing tack, I can’t remember an anti-communist or even truthful film about communists since The Killing Fields. I can remember a huge number which whitewash communism’s shockingly violent history.

Last edited 3 years ago by Andrew Lale
David NebeskĂœ
David NebeskĂœ
3 years ago

In fairness, I would also teach that in these conditions of bad government and permanent shortages, solidarity and kindness between individuals can flourish.

Maybe it can. Maybe it even happened somewhere sometime. But I was born and raised in a soviet satellite and my experience is just the opposite – one encountered anger, rudeness and selfishness nearly everywhere and nearly all the time.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago

We are taught about how evil the Nazis were from school onwards, the BBC and other mainstream media have endless programmes about it. We have Holocaust memorials and remembrance days. I don’t object to any of that, and actually the rise of the Nazis in particular (more so than the rise of Fascism in Italy) has an intrinsic macabre fascination for everyone including needing to be academically studied.

However the comparative silence about, in fact in numerical terms at least the greater numbers killed by Communist regimes is remarkable. This is all the more an issue since people are endlessly attracted to Left wing totalitarianism, and the culpability of so many of our modern Left wing intellectuals is indefensible.

And no one is learning Fascist ideology in our universities. Unfortunately, the current intolerant woke movement with its complete lack of proportion, judgement, context, humility or even rationality does not bode well for the future. God help us as they gain more political power, as they are now doing in the US. The, at least rhetorical, alliance with also any dictatorship, as long as it is non-White, anti-western or Islamist demonstrates yet more moral turpitude of a high order.

No, Donald Trump is very far from the worse political thing that can happen to a country. Anyone thinking that needs to educate themselves. I used to be on the Left, but it is, for the most part, an absolute disgrace in the West today.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I’m in complete agreement.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
3 years ago

How about just trying to teach literacy, numeracy and encouraging polite co-operative behaviour? The level of propaganda in schools is already out of hand so let’s row it right back rather than set up competing agendas; perhaps the humanities themselves have become too contentious and should be left to independent study…

Last edited 3 years ago by Martin Smith
Robert Pound
Robert Pound
3 years ago

As a socialist, I believe it is right to teach children about Communism. However:

  1. One should distinguish between different forms of socialism. It is nonsensical to lump Bernie Sanders in the same bracket as Stalin. Similarly, to evaluate what someone means by saying that socialism is “not… that bad”, one would have to know what form(s) of socialism they have in mind.
  2. DeSantis’ proposal isn’t simply to teach about the wrongs of Communist regimes but also to indoctrinate students with a very narrow, nationalistic and jingoistic view of the United States. It presupposes that freedom and democracy are fundamental to the founding of the United States (instead of there being a debate about that) and tends to imply the superiority of US democracy over other forms of democracy (for example, in Western Europe).
  3. While the proposal does mention totalitarianism in general, and while it may well be that students already learn about fascism and Nazism, why is Communism the only example given in the proposed law of a totalitarian philosophy? Similarly, there is a reference to the “victims” of other nations’ governing philosophies, but no indication that other nations might have valid governing philosophies – not even liberal democratic states. This leads to a very partial, parochial and jingoistic worldview being propagated.
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Pound

Come on, we are taught endlessly in school and our media about the Nazis, as we should be. Communism was more successful in terms of the numbers of countries dominated and more people were killed. And Communism is still advocated by many intellectuals and activists in the West, which means it is even more important we learn about this ideology and its practical consequences.