Communism and Narratives

Four days until my subscription expires. Until then I will continue to read the NYT. Yesterday they published “When Communism Inspired Americans.” The main point seems to be that communism provided some Americans with a sense of meaning and identity back in the day.

It is perhaps hard to understand now, but at that time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity as translated by the Communist Party induced in the most ordinary of men and women a sense of one’s own humanity that ran deep, made life feel large; large and clarified. It was to this clarity of inner being that so many became not only attached, but addicted. No reward of life, no love nor fame nor wealth, could compete with the experience. It was this all-in-allness of world and self that, all too often, made of the Communists true believers who could not face up to the police state corruption at the heart of their faith, even when a 3-year-old could see that it was eating itself alive.

I think the article is pretty good. I also think it understates the extent to which Communist ideology is a cancerous lie. But it does a good job of pointing out the appeal of Communism and other all-encompassing ideologies. We are religious by nature, and we want there to be a grand narrative that we can identify ourselves with. Marxism tells a compelling story about the world, and stories are how you get people hooked.

For the same reason, Hitler was able to inspire millions of Germans. He was telling a story that resonated with something in their souls. Never underestimate the power of narrative. If one successfully implants itself into the collective imagination of a people, there is no telling what that people might do.

This is what I think post-modernity gets right: we should be skeptical of all-encompassing narratives. Unfortunately, most people are terrible at this, even if they claim to subscribe to postmodern thinking. They still view history as a single story, usually a story of liberation and increased equality. Instead of rejecting simplistic narratives in general, they reject only the narratives that they don’t like, resulting in their enthusiastic and hypocritical embrace of a mind-numbingly simple narrative.

The fact is that there are multiple stories. When you cease to tell any of them, you end up with a warped ideology that just might destroy the world. You cannot tell the story of individual responsibility and growth while excluding the story of systemic injustice. Otherwise, you will be cruel to those who suffer misfortune at the hands of the society they live in. You cannot tell the story of systemic injustice while excluding the story of meaningless tragedy. Otherwise, you will need a scapegoat to blame for problems that are intractable, for suffering that is a necessary feature of our current existence.

There is not one human story, but many stories. They are in tension with one another, to some degree. But they all need each other to avoid becoming the warped tools of destructive ideologies.

As a Christian, I do not believe in one story with one theme, but in a collection of stories with many themes, which are contained in the scriptures. Why else would God choose to give his Word to us through so many different authors who lived at so many different times? His story is too great to be told at once, so he gives us bits and pieces. Our job is not to string them together and remove all the tension from between them, but to study them in all their complexity and polyphony.

The nice thing about simple stories is that they’re easy to understand. But when you compile a complex narrative from many stories, the meaning of the narratives becomes far less clear. The truth is mysterious, and that’s why we’re so allergic to it. We want everything to be easy, so we opt for the stories that free us of our obligation to think. Marxism is one of those stories. It has just enough truth in it to be deadly.



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