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The Devil in History
Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century
By Vladimir Tismaneanu
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Utopian Radicalism and Dehumanization
We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's inhabitants. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.
—Grigory Zinoviev, Severnaya kommuna, September 19, 1918
For man, therefore, who despite a corrupted heart yet possesses a good will, there remains hope of a return to the good from which he has strayed.
—Immanuel Kant, "Concerning the Indwelling of the Evil Principle with the Good, or, on the Radical Evil in Human Nature."
In order to massacre them, it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin: kulaks are not human beings. But that is a lie. They are people! They are human beings!
—Vassily Grossman, Forever Flowing
La relation dialectique entre communisme et fascisme est au centre des tragédies du siècle.
—François Furet, "Sur l'illusion communiste"
Understanding the meanings of the twentieth century is impossible if we do not acknowledge the uniqueness of the revolutionary left and right experiments in reshaping the human condition in the name of presumably inexorable historical laws. It was during that century that, using Leszek Kolakowski's inspired term, "the Devil incarnated himself in History." The ongoing debate on the nature and the legitimacy (or even acceptability) of comparisons (analogies) between the ideologically driven revolutionary tyrannies of the twentieth century (radical Communism, or rather, Leninism, or, as some prefer, Stalinism) on one hand and radical Fascism (or, more precisely, Nazism) on the other bear on the interpretation of ultimate political evil and its impact on the human condition. In brief, can one compare two ideologies (and practices) inspired by essentially different visions of human nature, progress, and democracy, without losing their differentia specifica, blurring important doctrinary but also axiological distinctions? Was the essential centrality of the concentration camp, the only "perfect society," as Adam Michnik once put it, the horrifying common denominator between the two systems in their "highly effective" stage? (Zygmunt Bauman writes about our age as a "century of camps.") Was François Furet right in assuming that Communism's heredity was to be detected in the post-Enlightenment search for mass democracy, whereas Fascism symbolized the very opposite? Was Fascism, as Eugen Weber asserted, "a rival revolution" that saw Communism only as a "competitor for the foundation for power" (in the words of Jules Monnerot)?
Comparisons between Communism and Fascism and between Stalinism and Nazism are both useful and necessary. My comparative endeavor focuses on the common ground of these political movements, while also recognizing their crucial differences. Moreover, I agree with Timothy Snyder that "the Nazi and Stalinist systems must be compared, not so much to understand the one or the other but to understand our times and ourselves." Communism and Fascism forged their own versions of modernity based on programs of radical change that advocated homogenization as well as social, economic, and cultural transformation presupposing "the wholesale renovation of the body of the people." They were both founded upon immanent utopias rooted in eschatological fervor. To put it differently, the ideological storms of the twentieth century were the expression of a contagious hubris of modernity. Therefore, the lessons we learn by comparing and contrasting them have a universal, almost timeless meaning for any society that wants to avoid a disastrous descent into barbarity and genocidal forms of extermination. Contemporary dilemmas of a globalized world can only benefit from examination of the disastrous fallacies of the past.
THE LENINIST MUTATION
Here it is important to highlight the point made by Claude Lefort and Richard Pipes: Leninism was a mutation in the praxis of social democracy, not just a continuation of the "illuminist"-democratic legacies of socialism. Equally significant, precisely because he insisted so much on the "causal nexus" and counterrevolutionary anguish and fears, German historian Ernst Nolte did not fully grasp the nature of Fascist anti-Bolshevism as a new type of revolutionary movement and ideology, a rebellion against the very foundations of European modern civilization. Indeed, as Furet (and, earlier, Eugen Weber and George Lichtheim) insisted, Fascism, in its radicalized, Nazi form, was not simply a reincarnation of counterrevolutionary thinking and action. Nazism was more than just a reaction to Bolshevism, or to the cult of progress and the sentimental exaltation of abstract humanity symbolized by the proletariat. It was in fact something brand new, an attempt to renovate the world by getting rid of the bourgeoisie, the gold, the money, the parliaments, the parties, and all the other "decadent," "Judeo-plutocratic" elements. So Fascism was not a counterrevolution, as the Comintern ideologues maintained; rather it is itself a revolution. Or, to use Roger Griffin's more figurative phrasing, "The arrow of time points not backwards but forwards, even when the archer looks over his shoulder for guidance where to aim." According to the same author, Fascism was "a revolutionary form of nationalism.... [T]he core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence." At stake is the reaction to the "system," that is, to bourgeois-individualistic values, rights, and institutions. When Lenin disbanded the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, he was sanctioning a long-held scorn for representative democracy and popular sovereignty. The one-party system, emulated by Mussolini and Hitler, was thus invented as a new form of sovereignty that was contemptuous of individuals, fragmentation, deliberation, and dialogue. On January 6, 1918, celebrating the dissolution of pluralism, Pravda published the following:
The hirelings of bankers, capitalists, and landlords, the allies of Kaledin, Dutov, the slaves of the American dollar, the backstabbers, the right-essers demand in the Constitutional Assembly all power for themselves and their masters—enemies of the people. They pay lip service to popular demands for land, peace, and [worker] control, but in reality they tried to fasten a noose around the neck of socialist authority and revolution. But the workers, peasants, and soldiers will not fall for the bait of lies of the most evil of socialism. In the name of the socialist revolution and the socialist soviet republic they will sweep away its open and hidden killers.
One of the most acerbic reactions to the decision by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Yakov Sverdlov, and their companions to disband the remains of democracy in Russia came from the jailed Polish-German Marxist thinker Rosa Luxemburg in her manuscript notes on the Russian Revolution. In his trilogy, Leszek Kolakowski quotes Luxemburg's comment: "Freedom only for supports of the government, only for members of the single party, however numerous—this is not freedom. Freedom must always be for those who think differently." Kolakowski accurately captured the thrust of Rosa Luxemburg's criticism of Bolshevism:
Socialism was a live historical movement and could not be replaced by administrative decrees. If public affairs were not properly discussed they would become the province of a narrow circle of officials, and corruption would be inevitable. Socialism called for a spiritual transformation of the masses, and terrorism was no way to bring this about: there must be unlimited democracy, a free public opinion, freedom of elections and the press, the right to hold meetings and form associations. Otherwise the only active part of society would be bureaucracy: a small group of leaders who give orders, and the workers' task would be applaud them. The dictatorship of the proletariat would be replaced by the dictatorship of a clique.
The European civil war did indeed take place in the twentieth century, but its main stake was not the victory of Bolshevism over Nazism (or vice versa). It was rather their joint offensives against liberal modernity. Both totalitarian movements were intoxicated with "a state of expectancy induced by the intuitive certainty that an entire phase of history is giving way to a new one"—a mood of Aufbruch that became the ideological rationale for the totalist project to engineer reality. This explains the readiness of so many Communists to acquiesce in Soviet-Nazi complicity, including the 1939 "nonaggression" pact: the radical militants saw the "decadent" Western democracies as doomed to disappear, and they were therefore willing to ally themselves with the equally antibourgeois Fascists. This is not to say that anti-Fascism was just a propaganda device for the Comintern, or that anti-Marxism was not a central component of National Socialism. The point is that the two movements were essentially and unflinchingly opposed to democratic values, institutions, and practices. German political thinker Karl Dietrich Bracher once memorably stated that "totalitarian movements are the children of the age of democracy." In their most accomplished form, in the Soviet Union and Germany, Leninism and Fascism represented "a ferocious attack on and a frightening alternative to liberal modernity." Their simultaneous experiences situated them in "a 'negative intimacy' in the European framework of 'war and revolution'"—a "mortal embrace" that increased suffering and destruction to a level unprecedented in history.
In my view, clarifying these issues is enormously important for understanding the real political, moral, and cultural stakes of the post–Cold War order, an order that Ken Jowitt assumes to be "without Leninism," but where Leninist and fundamentalist-primordialist legacies continue to haunt political memory and imagination. On the other hand, we live in a world in which not only do post-Communist specters keep resurfacing, but where post-Fascist exclusionary delusions (and their practical consequences) are not fully extinct. The war between liberalism and its revolutionary opponents (and their nostalgia) is not over, and new varieties of extreme utopian politics should not be automatically regarded as impossible.
In a famous scene in his novel La condition humaine (translated into English as Man's Fate), novelist André Malraux captured the great dream of twentieth-century Communism (or at least the romantic-heroic moments associated with what the French writer once called l'illusion lyrique, the lyrical illusion). The scene takes place in China, during the failed Communist insurrection of 1926. Captured by the Kuomintang, a Communist militant is asked what he finds so appealing in the cause he fights for. The answer is "because Communism defends human dignity." "And what is dignity?" asks the tormentor. "The opposite of humiliation," replies the true believer, shortly before his death. I know of many former Communists who joined the cause because of this extraordinary novel, which came out in the early 1930s.
For young Malraux, Communism was a story of purity and regeneration that motivated a fanatical commitment to the still promising future and a visceral opposition to the real or imagined squalor of the old, dying order. In his memoirs, Arthur Koestler described the moral attraction of early Communism, comparing it to the asceticism and martyrdom of the first Christians. But, Koestler hastened to add, in a few short decades Communism declined from the heights of moral idealism to the horrors of the Borgias and the Inquisition. Yet even so lucid a critic of totalitarianism as Raymond Aron was not ready, until the last years of his life, to admit that Communism and Nazism were equally criminal in their very systemic nature. In his influential book Démocratie et totalitarisme, based on a course he delivered in 1957–58, Aron pointed to a major distinction between the two totalitarian experiments, referring to "the idea that inspires each of the two undertakings: in one case the final result is the labor camp, whereas in the other it is the gas chamber. In one case we deal with the will to construct the new man and possibly another man by whatever means; in the other there is a literally demonic will to annihilate a pseudo-race." Later, however, in his Memoirs, Aron renounced this distinction and wrote an unequivocal indictment of both systems as equally reprehensible: "I abhor Communism as much as I detest Nazism. The argument I once used to distinguish the class Messianism of the former from the race one advocated by the latter does not impress me anymore. The apparent universalism of Communism has become, in last analysis, a mystification." This was a harsh statement that many intellectuals and social activists today are still unready to endorse. The explanation for this reluctance lies, in my view, in the enduring mythologies of anti-Fascism, including those related to the Spanish Civil War, Communist participation in the resistance movements, and a failure to admit that Nazism was not the offspring but the entranced enemy of liberal capitalism.
THE MYTH OF THE PREDESTINED PARTY
The party as the incarnation of historical rationality, with the revolutionary avant-garde elected to lead the otherwise lethargic masses into the Communist paradise, was the hallmark of the Leninist intervention in the political praxis of the twentieth century. Without the party, there would be no Bolshevik revolution and no gulag, one can say. The myth of the party, more than the myth of the leader, explains the longevity and endurance of the Leninist project. The other side, the Fascists, while invoking the commands of historical providence, invested the ultimate center of power less in the institution than in the infallible "genius" of the leader. The party mattered, but there was never the same type of institutional charismatic magnet that Leninist formations represented, particularly in the case of Nazi Germany. In the case of Fascist Italy, when the charismatic leader was deposed in 1943, the party simply could not reinvent itself despite the fact that it successfully managed to reassert its autonomy vis-à-vis the leader by way of the Fascist Grand Council. In Italy proper the party disintegrated, while in the Salo Republic (the part of the country under German control) Mussolini simply became a puppet in Hitler's hands. Mussolini had lost the ability to perform the role of "of a modern propheta who offered his followers a new 'mazeway' (world-view) to redeem the nation from chaos and lead it into a new era, one that drew on a mythicized past to regenerate the future." Hitler's myth was much more resilient. Ian Kershaw remarked that his personality cult, as the nexus of "the social expectations and motivations invested in him by his followers," experienced a "slow deflation rather than the swift puncture."
A note should be made here regarding the possible difference between Italian Fascism and Nazism. As many scholars have already noted, in the German case the institutionalization of charisma was overshadowed by the "Führer principle." Philippe Burrin stresses that in Nazi Germany politics were fundamentally marked by "personalized power—in the double meaning of the term, centered around the person of Hitler and founded upon direct person-to-person relationships." In his classic study, Karl Dietrich Bracher considered that "the creation of the system of terror and extermination and the functioning of the police and SS apparatchiks operating that system rested on this overturning of all legal and moral norms by a totalitarian leader principle which did not tolerate adherence to laws, penal code, or constitution but reserved to itself complete freedom of action and decision-making. Political power was merely the executive of the Leader's will." Ian Kershaw's fundamental analysis of the "Hitler myth" showed the leader as a political entity almost independent of the party, "the motor for integration, mobilization, and legitimation within the Nazi system of rule." In this sense, the attraction of the leader principle, for the case of Germany, comes closer rather to the Lenin cult in the Soviet Union than to the cult of Stalin or Mussolini. Leaving aside its all-out religious aspects, Lenin's cult took the form of a myth of the founding father as the infinite source of ideological rebirth and sustenance for the Communist polity. And indeed the return to "true Leninist principles" repeatedly brought relief for the Soviet regime. The perpetuation and domination of a Khrushchevite understanding of post-Stalinist Communist systems allowed for the invocation of Lenin (the leader without sin, to paraphrase Kershaw) as safeguard of the original utopia, regardless of the latter's terrible toll on the societies that enacted it. Only the consistent failure of such ideological, cultic revivals finally showed the obsolescence of the "Lenin myth," which ultimately crumbled under its violent legacy.
Excerpted from The Devil in History by Vladimir Tismaneanu. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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