U.S. Election With a Dash of Bolshevism

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It is sometimes striking how the United States is beginning to resemble the late, unlamented Soviet Union in so many ways.

John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona who in Tuesday's primaries solidified his lead in the race for his party's presidential nomination, has been brutally savaged on the airwaves and in the media.

But not by his future Democratic rivals in the Nov. 4 election, as you would expect. His meanest critics have come from the evangelical Christian right and the populist and social-conservative wing of his own Republican Party.

They are inveighing against McCain for his proposals to reduce the influence of special interest groups on U.S. politics, for his advocacy of immigration reform and for his fiscal realism that may require raising taxes to start filling the massive gap in the federal budget.

Actually, McCain has come up with many statements that should have pleased even the most fanatical reactionaries -- while making others doubt his sanity. For example, this potential commander in chief once burst out singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" when asked about the possible U.S. response to Teheran's nuclear program. Nevertheless, right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives denounce the senator as a traitor and declare that they would rather see a true Democrat in the White House than a fake Republican like McCain.

This is almost a parody of the early period of Soviet history. Lenin wrote plenty of articles attacking the Russian monarchy and the capitalist system, but his bitterest vitriol was always reserved for fellow socialists -- those who dared seek a different path to revolution or propose alternative ways of improving the lot of the workers.

Stalin was even more uncompromising in stomping out heresy in the communist orthodoxy. Even though his purges murdered thousands of industrialists, land owners, clerics and tsarist government officials and military officers, many from the old ruling classes managed to survive. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, members of some of Russia's oldest families have come out of obscurity to join re-established noblemen's clubs.

But you had no chance as a Menshevik or a Socialist Revolutionary, with whom Lenin's Bolsheviks had once made common cause in fighting the monarchy. It was even worse if you were a Bolshevik who interpreted Lenin's creed differently from Stalin -- a Trotskyite, for example, or a left or right deviationist. Few of them lived past 1937.

With the advent of the Cold War in the 1940s, Stalinist propaganda duly poured abuse on U.S. and Western European imperialists. But it was tame compared with the flood of barely printable invective heaped upon Josip Tito, the Communist ruler of Yugoslavia. Tito had the temerity of proposing his own version of communism and junking the Soviet model. That could not be forgiven, and thousands of real or imagined Titoists across Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe were killed.

Communism has often been compared to a secular religion. In fact, religious fanatics through the ages have also been intolerant of dissent, hounding heretics much more relentlessly than members of completely different religions. In Western Europe, religious wars lasted through the 17th century, and in Iraq we are even now witnessing bloody sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

What is most surprising is that religiously tinged ideological zeal has emerged in the United States, a country founded on the principles of the Enlightenment and rationalism, in which the democratic process has always been seen as the only way of resolving conflicting interests and addressing diverse beliefs of members of a highly complex society. It is also disquieting that ideology, which brought so much woe to Europe in the 20th century, should rear its ugly head at the start of the 21st -- just after conservatives themselves had declared that the age of ideology is, finally and thankfully, over.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.