On July 17, 1918, an event occurred that clarified the meaning of the subsequent century of Communist revolutions. Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their five comely children, and a few steadfast friends were shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned to death in a basement in the Ural Mountains. The purge was executed by a vanguard of the People’s Revolution, as ordered by the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Vladimir Lenin. Like all subsequent “Chairmen,” “Helmsmen,” “General Secretaries,” “Ultimate Leaders,” and “Gardeners of Human Happiness” (a Stalin sobriquet), Lenin was given to hard pruning. No angel from heaven or devil in hell stayed the red hand wielding the revolutionary shears. If bourgeois conscience weakens resolve, Lenin and his spiritual heirs, from Mao, to Castro, to Xi Jinping—as alike as reptiles hatched from the same egg—had carte blanche to remold humanity on a colossal scale. The first “Gardener of Human Happiness” framed the big picture for a commissar squeamish about forced famine in the Ukraine: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.”
Marxist apologists see these “excesses” of Stalinism as a regrettable though understandable feature of ur-communism. No need, like nonagenarian ex-Nazis, to rebrand themselves in Argentina; or to confess that terror inheres in their ideology. Whether in East Germany, Cambodia, Cuba or China, the story doesn’t stray from the essential plot line. While generic, it is too monstrous to be boring.
Hoping to shade my “broad-brush” condemnations of the Great Socialist Experiment, a liberal acquaintance lent me The Motorcycle Diaries, a movie about a good Communist—Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The biopic portrays Che as a champion of the marginalized, a scourge of exploiters. My acquaintance found Che irresistible. But as Robert Conquest noted, people tend to be reactionary about things they take the trouble to understand, and grisly tales of Cuban émigré neighbors in New Orleans had put me on the scent of La Revolution; Armando Valladares’s memoir (Against All Hope) of his arrest and degradation on the Isla de Pinos—Fidel’s sunny Gulag—amplified my neighbors’ dark sketch. It was thus quite impossible to see Che as an avatar of St. Francis of Assisi who just happened to hate God. With his beret, mustache, and halo of cigar smoke, this beau idéal of the romantic revolutionary was destined for movie lore—and for use as a branding tool. Che wear—fatigues, caps, pajamas for the kiddies—still enjoys a brisk trade among consumer-society lefties. But while Che was more camera-friendly than “Papa” Stalin, his pock-marked, lupine idol, he was just as lethal. “When in doubt, shoot them,” he advised, a slug to the back of the head being the Che-way.
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What have Lenin, Stalin, and Che to do with Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo? Perhaps these vignettes from Armando Valladares’s Against All Hope will suggest the fearful symmetry.
Armando’s story, like so many going back to 1917, begins with a pounding on the door in the dead of night. Fidel’s secret police have learned their revolutionary history in order to repeat it. They know, for example, that a nocturnal call instills the maximum terror. The little fish and his family, jerked from the depths of sleep, gape as in a bad dream. Even a well-wisher of the Revolution, a left-leaning sympathizer—even, say, a Bishop Sorondo—might be alarmed to see armed strangers slice up bedding, ransack closets, pry up floor boards. Anyone who’s dipped into such bedside reading as The Gulag Archipelago or The Black Book of Communism envisions the scene. The little fish and his terrified family are sure there has been some ghastly mistake, soon to be rectified by socialist jurisprudence.
But twenty years pass, and the captive has been unable to jump the hook. After two decades on a diet of corn meal from sacks stamped NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION—of torture, of stints in solitary, of years without fruit on an island that exports it—gums bleed, teeth fall out. The starvelings, wobbling on bare, bloody feet, can’t pulverize their quota of rock. Assigned to clean out a lake of excrement, which bakes into eyes and wounds under the tropical sun, a prisoner is tempted to steal a few seconds of unauthorized break. The guardians of the revolution motivate the slacker with curses, clubbings, and jabs of the bayonet. Occasionally one of these cockroaches, octopuses, vermin, running-dogs, parasites (Communist rhetoric is a thesaurus of zoological metaphors) goes berserk and charges his rehabilitators with impotent fists. Such ingratitude means death for the subversive; and another work-detail for his comrades, grave-digging being beneath the dignity of the well-fed screws.
Sometimes all that sustains a prisoner in the maw of a reeducation camp is his hope “against all hope” that those on the outside are demanding a reckoning. If he is religious, he trusts that his church, his bishop, his pope, are storming the princes of this world, and high heaven, for justice. To believe otherwise might threaten the very idea of Providence—and of one’s sanity.
The thirst for righteousness in a labor camp is more than a pious myth. Prisoners often refuse to lie, even when their captors dangle a promise of freedom in exchange for “cooperation.” Like Solzhenitsyn and his fellow zeks, Valladares refused. He couldn’t pretend—for the cameras—that the Isla de Pinos was a rehabilitation center. What transpired in Castro’s labor camps, as in the Gulags, the killing fields—or in the laogai of China—always finds a witness.
In revolutions, as in storms at sea (the observation is Balzac’s), light trash floats on the waves, while solid worth goes to the bottom. There was a priest of solid worth on the Isla named Angel Loredo, who bore, with equal valor, the same beatings and humiliations as his friend Valladares. As early as 1961, most of the good priests were deported or imprisoned. “Patriotic” prelates like Monsignor Azcarante, the Bishop of Havana, stayed on—as cozy with Castro as with Battista. In fact, they enjoyed palatial housing, Alfa Romeos, and “good press.” Fidel had them over for dinner and the finest Havana leaf—to help in the planning of social justice and poverty relief. Like Che, Castro’s preferential option was always for los pobres.
Visitors were rare, but Castro made an exception for the mitered mediocrity of Havana. Sitting with Father Loredo under some shade trees, Bishop Azcarante counseled Father Loredo to spurn Valladares and his reactionary hunger strike. Why persist in a futile gesture, unknown to the outside world?
But the prisoners had smuggled in a radio. They knew that their “futile gesture” was news. The bishop, says Valladares, “lied knowingly, and the only object of his visit was to demoralize us.” Is it not a mystery—of iniquity—that these atheist regimes always find serviceable churchmen, an Azcarante in Cuba, a Sorondo in China, to demoralize the resistance?
Not all bishops were so pliable. After it had become clear that Castro was indeed taking the Marxist path, the Cuban hierarchy had denounced communism. The regime then seized Catholic schools, abolished religious instruction, and exiled unpatriotic clergy. Hundreds of priests were banished; or, like Father Loredo, given a government-paid vacation to the Isla de Pinos. Cooperators—“the light trash” of Balzac’s simile—were as snug as they had been under Battista. The Vatican’s “Our-Man-In-Havana,” was a Monsignor Zacchi, who proclaimed Cuba “pagan before the Revolution … but a believer under communism.”
Today another prelate hails the reign of Christ in another atheist tyranny. Bishop Sorondo discovers “the moral leadership that others have abandoned” in The People’s Republic of China. Of all the societies in this sinful world, the same regime that leads the world in firing squad executions, that coerces women to kill their unborn children, that bulldozes churches and jails “unpatriotic” bishops, that tells peasants to forget about Jesus, for only the Party can help you—is, according to Bishop Sorondo, “the best implementer of Catholic Social Doctrine.” Readers have encountered similar effusions, equally remarkable for callousness or fatuity, in Paul Kengor’s Crisis articles; so I will spare them further recitation. Suffice it to say that the spirit of Monsignor Zacchi and Bishop Azcarante lives on; or as G.K. Chesterton expressed the phenomenon: “experience beats in vain on the breast of the congenital progressive.”
Now that Xi has had himself proclaimed lingxiu (variously translated in European languages—the German media suggests Fuhrer), the Vatican may be embarrassed by Bishop Sorondo’s full-throated love-song. But his lyrics are unretractable. The persecuted Christians have heard them—and may be wondering if the only object of his visit was to demoralize the faithful. While the Vatican may scrub its website, it will be harder to remove the egg from its face. History suggests that even now, a Chinese Christian is secretly scribbling his memoirs.
(Photo credit: Che Guevara in 1963; René Burri / Wikimedia)