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The Little Red Book for Children

Long before the Soviet Union crushed all political tendencies that favored a more libertarian form of socialism, the name for that way of life free from the misery of wage labor was called communism. In the philosophical epilogue to her book, Ms. Adamczak explicitly confronts the problem of how to speak about communism after a century of disasters committed in its name.

As she makes abundantly clear, it’s not easy.

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And yet, that doesn’t let us off the hook. The only way to truly understand the failures of communism is to take seriously the motivations, desires and ideals of those who advocated it. But to do that, one must first understand capitalism.

This is where it gets very confusing for most critics of communism, because Karl Marx himself praised the productivity, efficiency and power of the market economy. If only we can harness the energy of capitalism without its exploitative effects, many communists pondered, then surely we can create a better society for all. Or: If only the workers could own the factories themselves, then surely we could unleash the productive force of society. Or rather: If only we had economic experts to better manage the market, then surely we could satisfy the needs of all. Or even: If only more machines took care of our labor, then surely all our problems would be solved.

Photo“Communism for Kids” book cover

Alas, the history of communism is littered with failed attempts by communists to be better at capitalism than the capitalists themselves.

As Ms. Adamczak argues, this is because most communist criticisms of capitalism take one idealized aspect of capitalist society and pit it against the others, unwittingly perpetuating the framework communism sets out to abolish. This recipe for disaster recurs throughout history, and the only way to stop it is for everyone to learn about the unsuccessful attempts at revolution, so as not to repeat those mistakes in their current struggles.

Hence, “Communism for Kids.”

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In the vast sea of hogwash that flooded the conservative mediasphere after the book appeared in English, the same talking-point detritus floated to the surface over and over again: The book indoctrinates children with propaganda; it promotes an evil ideology that led to the death of millions; it is published by a prestigious university that should have known better; it is hypocritical, because it costs money; and it is fundamentally anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-family (and by implication, it’s foreign, Jewish and queer). One reviewer[3] even called it the “most dangerous book on economics ever written for kids.”

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One hundred percent of these criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of the title, a basic denial of the fact that all commodities cost money in capitalism and a misconceived view of how academic publishing functions[5]. None of this concerns the book’s actual content.

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That didn’t stop the internet swarm, the proper expression of digital communication today, as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han puts it[7].

Ms. Adamczak’s original German edition was just called “Communism: A Little Story About How Everything Could Be Different.” In fact, it’s not a children’s book at all, but a book written for everyone in a language that, for the most part, children, too, could understand. The title we chose for the American edition was an elegant way to convey this aspect of the book.

There is no propaganda, no brainwashing and no rose-tinted stories of happy-go-lucky communist do-gooders tricking kids into drinking the Marxist Kool-Aid.

When the book first appeared in Germany, which was over a decade ago, there was no such rage. So what is it about the word “communism” that frightens Americans so much from left to right? Did the Red Scare ever end?

I think, rather, that in America the fear of the word “communism” is tied to a fear of the word “capitalism,” another no-go word in polite discourse. It’s easy to talk about markets, industry, the middle class, job creators, lean start-ups, globalization and the gig economy, but to identify our entire society as capitalist and to call our economic system capitalism is to hint at the possibility of an alternative organization of life. And that is dangerous, un-American, perhaps even communist.

Naming the problem may be the first step toward curing the illness, but it doesn’t yet tell us how to proceed.

For that, we need ideas, experiments and dreams. Is it wise to dream about utopia while living in the dystopia of the present?

The German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, known for his negative stance toward the world after the experience of Auschwitz, notoriously proclaimed[8]: “There is no right life in the wrong one.” This is usually interpreted to mean that no ethical shifts of individual lifestyle can fix the social problems that systematically result from the political and economic structure of society. Individuals act within predetermined social roles, with little sway over the content of their lives except for a choice of character mask.

The real agents of society are not people but things, commodities whose song and dance on the market we must all closely observe and abide by, on pain of starvation, homelessness and death. Adorno’s bleak message was not intended for his contemporaries, but for the future — that is, for our present, so that we may understand how the past failures of revolution destroyed any concrete possibility of hope for another way of life.

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There’s another reading of Adorno’s remark. We may not be able to live a wrong life rightly, but we can stop living wrongly altogether.

To do that requires a depth of social imagination, the courage of collective struggle and a wellspring of political desire that seems all but evaporated in the present moment. “Communism for Kids” is not a message in a bottle to some imagined future audience; it is rather a collection of broken shards from lost futures still jammed in the present.

It is a cry from behind the curtain of history to rectify the injustices of the past by attending to the suffering of the present.

I suggest we pay attention.

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