The revolutionary idea of Communism fueled one  of the most powerful and, yes, successful political movements of modern times.  Indeed, for more than a century, it was this revolutionary movement was the principal challenger to liberal democracy.  The regimes that embraced it transformed their societies in ways that appeared to advance the well-being of millions of people.  As we know, there was also a huge cost to this experiment. Communist true-believers committed acts of inhumanity that violated their movement’s founding principles.

Today, the dream of communism is mostly over. However, this doesn’t diminish its relevance at all.  All political identities and regimes are mortal.  Let’s face it, liberal democracy is not in such great shape today.  Given the possibility that we may already be experiencing its last moments, the demise of its chief competitor provides an invaluable opportunity to ask questions about the limits of politics.  In the words of a great philosopher:  “All things must pass.”

The rise and demise of communism presents us with a number of challenging questions:

            • What was the communist era all about?
            • Why did people believe in this revolutionary movement?
            • Where did it go wrong?
            • Despite its flaws, how did the idea of communism last for so long?

Lessons for the Study of Politics

The study of communism is no different than the study of any political movement.  Politics is about nothing more than the examination of conflicts over three ways of binding human beings together: Ideas, Rules, and Incentives.  Whether we are talking about the U.S. Congress (speak about conflict!), the Vatican, the Boy Scouts of America, the NCAA, or the University of Notre Dame du lac, political systems differ only in how their leaders define these factors and put them into practice.

            • Ideas:  What constitutes a good society?
            • Rules:  What rules are required to realize this idea?
            • Incentives:  How do rulers get what they want?

My aspiration

By the end of this seminar, I hope you will see that we have talked about much more than communism.  We will address themes relating to the entire human condition:  what is truth?  how should we get along? what are our obligations in living with other human beings who are no different than we are?  For me, these themes are directly related to Notre Dame’s distinctive identity.  There is no better wrestle with these big questions.


NOTE: Please leave your technology at home. This includes electronic devices of any kind, such as laptops, Kindles, i-Pads, I-phones, video cameras, video games, dog fences, or other personal digital devices.

My class is a no-tweet zone. Some things are just not dignified!