“If you meet with difficulties in your work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of himof Stalin—and you will find the confidence you need. If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him—of Stalin—and your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision, think of him—of Stalin—and you will find that decision” (Pravda, Feb. 17, 1950).

The previous issue of this magazine carried my lengthy report on a visit to Moscow by evangelical leaders. To an astonishing degree, we found that Marxism is dead and the Russian people are looking desperately to Christianity as a way to fill their spiritual vacuum. Since that trip, I have thought much about Soviet Marxism, an experiment Russians now call “74 years on the road to nowhere.” Why did it fail so badly?

Shaken To The Core

I remember vividly a meeting between our group of North American Christians and the editors of Pravda, formerly the official mouthpiece of the Communist party. Circulation figures at Pravda demonstrate the dramatic story of communism’s fall from grace: daily circulation has declined from 11 million to 700,000.

The editors of Pravda seemed earnest, sincere, searching—and shaken to the core. They were so shaken that they were now asking for help from emissaries of a religion their founder had scorned as “the opiate of the people.” The editors remarked wistfully that Christianity and communism have many of the same ideals: equality, sharing, justice, and racial harmony. Yet they had to admit the Marxist pursuit of that vision had produced the worst nightmares the world has ever seen. Why?

Sociologists, philosophers, and economists will no doubt perform their own postmortems on Marxism in the next few years, but what struck me in Russia is that communism failed because of two basic errors in what theologians call anthropology, or the doctrine of man.

First, Communists ignored the fallen nature of humanity. Early Communists had promised the emergence of a new breed of human being, the New Socialist Man. Leon Trotsky wrote in 1924, “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” Today, any Russian would laugh out loud at Trotsky’s prediction.

Classical Marxists preached atheism and fought fiercely against religion for a shrewd reason: In order to motivate workers to rise up violently against their oppressors, Marxists had to kill off any hope in a heavenly life beyond this one and any fear of divine punishment. They had to replace a God-man with a man-god. But human beings are fallen creatures, not man-gods. For this reason, no New Socialist Man ever emerged.

Sixteen years ago, when communism still posed a worldwide threat, a Romanian pastor named Josif Tson wrote in CHRISTIANITY TODAY of the contradiction that lies at the heart of a Marxist view of humanity. “[They teach] their pupils that life is the product of chance combinations of matter, that it is governed by Darwinian laws of adaptation and survival, and that it is man’s only chance. There is no after-life, no ‘savior’ to reward self-sacrifice or to punish egoism or rapacity. After the pupils have been thus taught, I am sent in to teach them to be noble and honorable men and women, expending all their energies on doing good for the benefit of society, even to the point of self-sacrifice. They must be courteous, tell only the truth, and live a morally pure life. But they lack motivation for goodness. They see that in a purely material world only he who hurries and grabs for himself possesses anything. Why should they be self-denying and honest? What motive can be offered them to live lives of usefulness to others?”

The Pravda editors conceded to us that they didn’t know how to motivate people to show compassion. The average Soviet citizen would rather spend his money on drink than support needy children. A recent poll had revealed that 70 percent of Soviet parents would not allow their children to have contact with a disabled child; 80 percent would not give money to help; some advocated infanticide. “How do you reform, change, motivate people?” the editors asked us.

Goodness At Gunpoint

The editors’ question points to the second major flaw in Marxist anthropology. Early Communists believed that they—not God—were the ones to determine morality, which could then be enforced from the top down. Seventy-four years of communism prove beyond all doubt that goodness cannot be legislated from the Kremlin and enforced at the point of a gun. In a great irony, attempts to compel morality tend to produce rebellious subjects and tyrannical rulers.

Worse, the Communist rulers who made decisions about morality tragically recapitulated the first flaw: They, too, were fallen creatures. Moral principles shifted depending on who was in power. Pravda was now showing admirable compassion by raising funds for the young victims of the Chernobyl disaster. But the same newspaper had, for example, shown no compassion whatever for the children victims of Stalin’s enforced starvation of Ukraine. What “higher law” determined when compassion applied and when it did not? Pravda had no answer.

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I came away with the strong sense that we Christians would do well to relearn basic lessons of theology. Some of my friends seem almost embarrassed by doctrines like the Fall and Original Sin. “Christianity has such a pessimistic view of human nature,” they say. Others wish that God would play a more heavy-handed role in human affairs. “He allows too much freedom,” they say. “Why doesn’t God interfere more? Why does he let so much evil go unpunished in this life?”

In Russia I saw the tragic results of the alternatives—an optimistic view of human nature and a morality based on compulsion, not inner transformation. It was a darkly sobering reminder of what happens when human beings ignore God’s revelation and come up with their own.

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