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The Crimes of Boss Honecker

COMMUNISM as envisioned by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other utopian seers was a vast experiment in the reordering of society and the redistribution of resources. The economic, political, and moral arguments against communism ultimately are superior to those in favor of it; but at the core of true communism is a vision of equality that, though flawed, has appealed to masses and intellectuals around the world.

As an economic and political system, however, "true" communism has rarely been attempted and never sustained. Beginning with the first large-scale attempt to translate Marxist theory into Leninist practice, communism invariably has been corrupted into a vehicle for brutal and efficient dictatorship and for sustaining the power and perks of a haughty elite. Under "classless" communism, the "vanguard" always rips off the proletariat.

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Most communist leaders have been criminals: not only in the cosmic sense that mass murderers like Stalin and Mao were criminals, but also in a far more petty, venal sense. Like New York's infamous Boss Tweed, they have lined their pockets and put family members in charge of state enterprises.

The trial in Berlin of Erich Honecker, the former boss of East Germany, will be useful if it discloses the ways in which 20th-century communism has resembled the Mafia more than Brook Farm.

Mr. Honecker, who sought protection from the Soviet Union after his fall from power in 1989, was returned from Moscow July 29 to be tried by reunited Germany. He is charged with responsibility for the deaths of at least 49 people who tried to escape over the Berlin Wall and with enriching himself with state funds.

This shouldn't be a political show trial. The leaders of the former East Germany have much to answer for, from brutalizing their people to fouling the environment to the mass doping of Olympic athletes. But there are legal and political pitfalls in attempting, in a court of law, to convict a system.

It will be enough if Germany, and the world, are shown that Honecker and many others like him did not, and do not, seek to serve an ennobling vision of social justice, but rather, like any mob capo, they embrace banal thuggery.

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