Professor G. A. Cohen of Oxford University, whose acquaintance it was my distasteful experience to make while in Oxford, wrote in his book Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) of his sorrow at the disappearance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. According to Cohen, who grew up in a family that was dedicated to the fastening of communist tyranny on the entire world, he was (in 1989) “saddened by what I perceive to be the impending final abandonment of the Bolshevik experiment.” According to Cohen, “It is true that I was heavily critical of the Soviet Union, but the angry little boy who pummels his father’s chest will not be glad if the old man collapses.” Cohen’s criticism amounted to complaining that the USSR was not socialist enough, that it was straying from its original principles, not that it was a gigantic prison. (Of course, as has been known from the first, being a gigantic prison was its original principle.)
I hope that Cohen and the thousands of other apologists for dictatorship still among us read Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag: A History. It is almost certainly one of the most important books of the past decade. Applebaum is a fine journalist, an excellent writer, and a judicious historical researcher. I cannot recommend her book too highly. But I warn all but the most hard-hearted of readers: do not expect to get through her book without weeping, not–with G. A. Cohen–for the collapse of the “Bolshevik experiment” in organized mass murder, but for the suffering of millions and millions of innocent victims. I hope that the Cohens of the world read this book and realize that every moment of their lives was ultimately pointless. They strove to impose their cruel vision of a new man on the old, only to find that it was all for naught. Of course, plenty of them made lots of money from it, G. A. Cohen among them. (Cohen wrote a truly loathesome–and philosophically feeble–defense of himself titled If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000].) I can only hope that they taste the ashes of their wasted lives every day they still draw breath. For the rest of us, we should read Gulag: A History to know the truth about the twentieth century.
A book on the history of the Armenian Massacres or of the Shoah or of the Gulag or of the Great Leap Forward or of Ethnic Cleansing is likely to end with an invocation of the slogan, ‘Never Again!’ Applebaum is wiser. She concludes her book as follows:
“This book was not written ‘so that it will not happen again,’ as the cliche would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people. Destruction of the ‘objective enemy,’ as Hannah Arendt once put it, remains a fundamental object of many dictatorships. We need to know why–and each story, each memoir, each document in the history of the Gulag is a piece of the puzzle, a part of the explanation. Without them, we will wake up one day and realize that we do not know who we are.”
To paraphrase an influential thinker of some two millennia ago, “The G. A. Cohens we have always with us.”