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 Kołakowski'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 Synder 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 Kołakowski 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." Kołakowski 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," rather 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.
In Mussolini's Italy, Il Duce's myth did not represent the rationale of the Fascist religion. In Gentile's words, "It was created out of the collective experience of a movement that considered itself invested with a missionary charisma of its own, one that was in fact not, in its beginnings, identified with Mussolini. ... The Mussolini myth came into being within the environment of the Fascist religion once the latter had been institutionalized." Italian Fascism enshrined the leader as an institution potentially independent of Mussolini. An Italian jurist contemporary to those times formulated the problem as follows: "If the new state is to become a permanent way of being, that is a 'life-system,' it cannot do without the role of the Leader because of its hierarchical structure, even if this Leader does not have the extraordinary magnitude of the Man who promoted the revolution in the first place." In 1934, the Sardinian born Fascist intellectual Edgardo Sullis published a book whose title echoed Thomas à Kempis, Il Duce-Imitatione de Mussolini, in which he urged the militants to pursue a political life totally dedicated to a radical transformation of society and themselves: "You should imitate Mussolini alone. You should have no other example in life except him." This "totalitarian Caesarism" (to use Gentile's term), or hierocratic Bonapartism, which allowed for the interchangeability of charisma between the leader and the party is strikingly similar to the Soviet formula of the general secretary as the "Lenin of our times" (one often used in other Communist regimes as well). In fact, the struggle between Stalin and his arch-rival Trotsky revolved around the crucial question, Who can legitimately claim to be "today's Lenin"?
The primary form of charisma, in the Soviet case, was that of the party as scientific socialism incarnate, the eschatological agent that stressed "the gap between the proletariat 'in itself' and the proletariat 'for itself' and the creation of an agent charged with closing this gap." Even Stalin's legitimacy, at the peak of the cult of personality, "in the eyes of his fellow party leaders rested in what they saw as his role of guarantor of their collective power of the state." As in Mussolini's case, Lenin remained the founder of Bolshevism, the head of the Soviet state (first workers' state), and the leader of the Soviet peoples. Under Stalinism, "the fact that the party existed as a continuous, integrated hierarchy, which was institutionally and ideologically embedded in the system, meant that it always existed as a resource for correcting and reining in the regime's most extreme policies. The institutional continuity of the party provided the basis for self-containment." Such a specific alignment allowed for successive Leninist reinventions and stagnations in both the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One possible explanation for the immensely explosive impact of Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" (February 1956) was, besides the classical remark about the acceptance of fallibility in the implementation of the party line at the highest level of power, that the revealed crimes were against the party. The Stalin myth irreversibly subverted the party's "charismatic impersonalism" (in the words of Ken Jowitt). The bottom line is, for the moment, that both Fascism (in its Italian avatar) and Leninism had the possibility of charismatic regeneration built in regardless of the leadership's persona. What counted for true believers was the salvific promise incarnated in the party-the source of freedom through successful experimentation with history. However, in the Italian case, such a revival of the party after Mussolini's demise proved impossible because of the disastrous situation in which the country found itself as a result of the National Fascist Party's shockingly incompetent administration of the war effort. Historian R. J. B. Bosworth noticed that even during the Salo Republic, "the new regime carefully avoided the word 'Fascist,' opting instead for 'social' as a signal of its revolutionary commitment to a 'new order' at home and abroad." The new Republica Sociale Italiana can be perceived as a desperate but doomed attempt to revive the heroic mission of Fascism in Italy.
There was a major distinction between Communism and Fascism in identifying the place of charisma: Leninists worshipped the party (and the leader as the guarantor of the correct party line), whereas Fascists lionized the magnetic personality of a presumably infallible leader. This explains the enduring fascination with Communism among individuals who continued to believe in its promise of a new society and of social, economic, cultural, and political transformation, even after Khrushchev exposed Stalin's abominable crimes. A lingering sentiment that there was after all something moral in Bolshevik utopianism, plus the exploitation of anti-Fascist emotions, led to a persistent failure to acknowledge the basic fact that, from its inception, Sovietism was a criminal system.
I vividly remember a conference in New York in October 1987, when statements by two dissidents (the Russian Eduard Kuznetsov and the Romanian Dorin Tudoran) about Communism as a "criminal civilization" provoked an angry response from Mihajlo Marković, the Yugoslavian critical Marxist who in the late 1990s became the main ideologue of the Milošević regime. Simply put, to document and condemn the bestiality of the Nazis was acceptable, but to focus on analogous atrocities perpetrated by the radical Left appeared as primitive anti-Communism. Albert Camus once summarized the moral perplexity provoked by such a consistent barrage of ideologically motivated prejudice: "When I demand justice, I seem to be asking for hate." The revolutions of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed the situation. The Soviet bloc's efforts to create the City of God here and now, the search for the perfect society, turned out to be an abysmal disaster. The record sheet of these regimes was one of absolute failure, economically, politically, and morally. It is high time for their victims to be remembered. Norman Naimark has formulated a priority for historical scholarship: "In the final analysis, both totalitarianstates-Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia-were perpetrators of genocide, the 'crime of crimes.' In spite of the fall of the Soviet Union and the attendant greater access to information, we know much more about the Nazi atrocities than we do about the Soviet ones, and about those who initiated, organized, and carried them out. The crucial issue of intentionality and criminal culpability in the Soviet case can only be settled definitively with full access to Russian archives and to thoseresponsible, who stillsurvive." Such conceptualization should be extended to the period of "High Stalinism" in China, Albania, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria (1949-1953), and even the genocidal terrorism of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. In each of these cases one can see how the persistence of the will to sacrifice entire sections of society on the altar of the political myth materialized in a large-scale commitment to violence.
The comparative evaluation and memory of Communism and Fascism were undeniably marked, mediated, and instrumentalized by the tradition of anti-Fascism in the West. At the root of this fundamental intellectual and public ethos lay a flawed and guilty interpretation of the Communist past. The latter was defined, on the one hand, by silence, partiality, or ignorance regarding the crimes and dictatorship of Leninist party-states, and on the other hand, by the difficulty of separating anti-Fascism from the imperialist propaganda of the Soviet Union during the twentieth century (or China, and their various satellites). The case of the Spanish Civil War remains paradigmatic for the entire history of anti-Fascism. François Furet gave an excellent characterization of the grievous misrepresentation that engendered this tradition: "Communist antifascism had two faces, neither of which happened to be democratic; the first face that of solidarity, which had ennobled so many soldiers, perpetually concealed the pursuit of power and the confiscation of liberty." Anti-Fascism functioned for most of its existence on the principle that cohesion had to be defended at all costs, even if this meant, to paraphrase Francis Ponge, taking the party out of things (the original coinage is "le parti pris des choses"). In Furet's words, "In the hour of the Great Terror, Bolshevism reinvented itself as liberty by virtue of a negation."
Subsequently, anti-Fascism was put in the situation of always turning out to be a mere rhetoric of democracy and freedom. It harbored "existential untruths" (to use Diner's term), which it consistently failed to address because of its unflinching dedication to the Communist (i.e., Soviet) core ideology. Anti-Fascism therefore acquired a split personality: "It encompassed the totalitarian satraps of Eastern Europe as well as the political cosmos of the Western European Left from 1945 well into the 1970s." Its proponents (and nowadays its survivors) adopted a hegemonic pretense to socialist utopia's innocence in utter disregard of the criminality of the utopia in power. This anti-Fascist monopoly over the past "afflicted the very past itself."
The anti-Fascist promise failed because of its umbilical connection to the Moscow center. It is difficult, therefore, to agree with historian Geoff Eley, who stated that the 1943-47 moment of anti-Fascist unity lost out because of "the sharpening tensions between the Soviet Union and United States.... [A]nd as Stalin hauled the communist parties back to a language of soviets and proletarian dictatorship, this sanctifying of parliamentarianism once again became a key marker of divisions on the left." It failed because of the true nature of the Communist parties and of their leader, Stalin's Communist Party (CPSU). It failed because it accepted the same contract of silence, the one it endorsed during the Great Terror, regarding the Zhdanovist offensive and the already sweeping Sovietization of some Eastern European countries (for example, the extermination camps and mass executions in Bulgaria between 1944 and 1947). Zhdanovism should not be reduced to simply meaning the "two-champ theory" spelled out by Stalin's first lieutenant in September 1947 at the founding conference of the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers' Parties (Cominform). When referring to the times of Zhdanov (zhdanovshchina), we think of the debate around official philosopher Georgi Aleksandrov's History of West European Philosophy and the condemnation of Anna Akhmatova (slandered as driven by "a sex-crazed mystic longing for Catherine's good old days") and Mikhail Zoshchenko. These key moments of the immediate aftermath of the Second World War triggered in the USSR (and, by default, in the Soviet satellite countries) a new wave of terroristic frenzy under the guise of anticosmopolitanism and ideological remobilization. These domestic dynamics preceded the inception of the Cold War. Also, one should not forget the execution and imprisonment of millions of Soviet citizens scattered across Hitler's Reich (POWs, individuals used as forced labor by the Nazis, or concentration camp inmates) upon their forced return by the Allies to the USSR. Postwar Soviet Union was the antithesis of freedom and democracy; it was indeed "a world built on slavery." After surveying the existent data, Timothy Snyder concludes that "there were never more Soviet citizens in the Gulag than in the years after the war; indeed, the number of Soviet citizens in the camps and special settlements increased every year from 1945 until Stalin's death." With such a system spearheading the anti-Fascist movement, there was no chance for any renewal of the Left. But after the defeat of Hitler, anti-Fascism was entrenched as politicized will, feeding on its own self-righteousness, thrusting blindly forward in a frenzied activism. It thus only worsened a pre-existing fascination with Stalin's "Great Experiment." In this context, as Sydney Hook remarked, "Intellectual integrity became the first victim of political enthusiasm."
To come back to my earlier argument, the comparison between Communism and Fascism has been fundamentally tainted, intellectually and scholarly, both by the claim of the original innocence of Leninism (or the so-called ultimately humane and positive Communist utopia) and by anti-Fascism's long-standing, resounding failure to denounce the murderousness and illiberality of Communist regimes. Additionally, the experience of the Second World War in various Western countries, with its violence, collaboration, treason, and often limited resistance to the Fascist occupier, left a muddled vision of justice. For example, in the case of postwar France, Tony Judt demonstrated convincingly that "the absence of any consensus about justice-its meaning, its forms, its application-contributed to the confused and inadequate response of French intellectuals to the evidence of injustice elsewhere, in Communist systems especially."
Nevertheless, I consider legitimate the questions raised by historian Anson Rabinbach on the legacy of a tradition that is part and parcel of the present European identity: "Is it possible to go beyond a confrontation between antifascism as a state-sponsored myth mobilized to disguise the crimes of the 'first' (Soviet) antifascist regime, and antifascism as a necessary and heroic moment in the history of the West's resistance to totalitarianism in its first phase? Can we come to a different judgment than the mutually exclusive perspectives of 1936 and 1989?" My answer, and the discussion that follows serves as an example, is positive, in the sense that the reassessment of the history of the twentieth century's totalitarianisms provides us with lessons and values for the safeguard of democracy and freedom on both the left and the right. Anti-Fascism and anti-Communism are logical reactions to the experiences and realities of a ravaged century.
The Black Book of Communism and Its Impact
One of the most important moments for the reevaluation of the role played by Communism (as both an ideology and a regime type) was the publication of The Black Book of Communism and the subsequent debates (in France, Germany, the United States, and so on) generated by this volume and its theses both in the public sphere and among academics. The book initially came out to an enormous success in France, where it sold over 200,000 copies. Its Italian and German translations also became best sellers. The publication of the book in East-Central Europe led to endless polemics and discussions regarding the responsibility for, complicity with, and consequences of Communist crimes. What The Black Book of Communism succeeded in demonstrating is that Communism in its Leninist version (and, one must recognize, this has been the only successful application of the original dogma) was from the outset inimical to individual rights and human freedom. As Martin Malia stated in the foreword to the American edition: "The communist regimes did not just commit criminal acts (all states do on occasion); they were criminal enterprises in their very essence: on principle, so to speak, they all ruled lawlessly, by violence, and without regard for human life." In spite of its overblown rhetoric about emancipation from oppression and necessity, the leap into the kingdom of freedom announced by the founding fathers turned out to be an experiment in ideologically driven, unbounded social engineering. The very idea of an independent judiciary was rejected as "rotten liberalism." The party defined what was legal and what was not: as in Hitler's Germany, where the heinous 1936 Nuremberg Laws were a legal fiction dictated by Nazi racial obsessions, Bolshevism from the outset subordinated justice to party interests. For Lenin, the dictatorship of the proletariat was rule by force and unrestricted by any law. His famous reply to Kautsky speaks volumes about the true ethos of his ideology: "The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained through the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws."
The class enemy had to be weeded out and destroyed without any mercy. Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin's hysterical prosecutor in the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, carried this macabre logic to its ultimate consequences when he made the defendants' confessions the main argument for sentencing them to death. In other words, the presumption of innocence was replaced by a universalized presumption of guilt. As for the rhetoric of hatred, comparable to Goebbels's most insanely inflammatory speeches, this passage is worth quoting:
Shoot these rabid dogs! Death to this gang who hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! Down with that vulture Trotsky, from whose mouth a bloody venom drips, putrefying the great ideals of Marxism! Let's put these liars out of harm's way, these miserable pygmies who dare to dance around rotting carcasses! Down with these abject animals! Let us put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses! Let their horrible squeals finally come to an end! Let's exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism, who want to tear to pieces the flower of our new Soviet nation! Let's push the bestial hatred they bear to our leaders back down their throats!
Both totalitarianisms "believed in the ubiquity of maleficent adversaries." Both defined their enemies on the basis of their potential for blocking the realization of the perfect community. Their obsession with eliminating all "objective enemies" on the road to the promised land led first to the replacement of "the suspected offense by the possible crime" (Hannah Arendt), and then to an all-out fixation on universal conspiracies.
Utopian ideals were used to legitimize the worst abuses against "objective" enemies, defined only in connection with the interests of a self-appointed revolutionary vanguard and the leader's fixations. In Nazi Germany, Hitler's Aryan-centered cosmology hyperbolized the imaginary Jew as simultaneously the organizer of market exploitation and the fomenter of Marxist attempts to overthrow it. The mythology of the Judeo-Bolshevik and Judeo-plutocratic plot thrived in the anti-Semitic visions of the East and Central European Far Right (later to reemerge in post-World War II Stalinist anti-Semitism). Paranoia regarding infiltrations, subversion, and treason have been enduring features of all Communist political cultures, from Russia and China to Romania and Yugoslavia. Leninist parties officially playing the democratic parliamentary game (in France and Italy after World War II) were no less intolerant of deviation from the orthodox line than similar formations in power (with the difference that they could not physically liquidate alleged spies and agents). Lenin once famously declared that "an organization of real revolutionaries will stop at nothing to rid itself of an unworthy member."
Perhaps the best book to read for understanding the nature and meaning of Leninism remains Dostoyevsky's novel Demons. The great Russian writer and political-religious thinker grasped the ominous consequences of nihilistic, extremist revolutionary actions undertaken by ecstatic apostles of universal liberation. Indeed, the chapter on Russia in The Black Book as well as Martin Malia's foreword show how Bolshevism had deep roots in the culture of apocalyptical extremism of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia. Its morality was embodied only in the "solid, united discipline and conscious mass struggle against the exploiters" (Lenin). There is only a small step from such destructive dedication to criminal single-mindedness. In August 1919, the organ of the Cheka, Krasnyi Metch, provided a vision of red horizons for humanity under the impact of the Great October Revolution: "For us everything is permitted, for we are the first in the world to wield the sword not to oppress and enslave, but to liberate mankind from its chains. ... Blood? Let blood flow!" This is the very essence of Leninism as a totalitarian movement: the conviction that it was building a new civilization, that it was the repository for the discrimination between good and evil, the interpreter of a new truth.
There was no spectacular revelation in The Black Book: after all, whatever has emerged from the secret archives of the former Soviet bloc countries is just a confirmation of the long-held view that Communists everywhere engaged in revolutionary civil war to accomplish the total transformation of man, economy, society, and culture. What was original was the comprehensive and systematic analysis and interpretation of the crimes and repressions associated with Leninist practices in the twentieth century. I commend the nuanced analyses of differences between stages and countries: Poland and Hungary, especially after Stalin's death, were not exactly totalitarian. After all, the Hungarian revolution was initiated by a group of anti-Stalinist reform Communists. There should have been deeper analysis of the Leninist experience in East Germany, including a discussion of currently available data concerning the infamous Stasi universe of fear and intimidation. As a whole, however, the fundamental merit of the Black Book of Communism, which set the tone for future discussion, was its endeavor to restore the public memory of Communism's crimes and to oppose revisionist efforts aimed at excusing the Communist vision, if not the practices. The volume showed that, as Michael Scammell excellently pointed out, "what matters is that we understand the entirety of this century's terrible history.... As a civilization we are obliged to come to terms with that truth [Communism's criminality], and admit our share of culpability, and draw correct conclusions."
The authors of the Black Book succeeded in assembling enough information to construct a big picture that maybe for the first time made an undeniable case that the scale of the crimes against humanity committed by Communist regimes do matter. Despite arguments to the contrary, Communism should not and cannot be studied just like other important events in world history. What is unfortunate, and some of Courtois' controversial introductory statements can be explained on this basis, is that it took too long to learn that "in the sorry story of our century, Communism and Nazism are, and always were, morally indistinguishable." Indeed, as Tony Judt states, this rather belatedly consensual epiphany "justifies a complete recasting and rewriting of the history of our times."
The book came out in France in 1997 and generated tremendous polemics, especially in such publications as Le Monde, Le Débat, and Commentaire. It was published at a time when the French intelligentsia had passionately discussed the mystifying appeals of Communism, as explored by the late François Furet in his masterful Le passé d'une illusion. Statements that were considered acceptable coming from Furet, one of the most respected and highly influential French historians, sounded outrageous to many former leftist intellectuals when presented in a very provocative formulation by the editor of the Black Book, Stéphane Courtois, in his introduction. Initially, the introduction was to be written by Furet himself, but when he passed away, Courtois, the editor of the journal Communisme, wrote a text that managed to irritate many French historians, political scientists, and journalists. Within a political and academic culture in which the radical Left had long exerted an inordinate influence (one may even use the term hegemony), Courtois' blunt and not always very balanced statements regarding the inherent (and, for him, morally mandatory) comparability of Communism and Fascism were perceived as politically charged, a mere simulation of a thoroughgoing historical approach. Furthermore, scholars like Annette Wieworka accused Courtois of an attempt to use this comparison to make Communism look worse than Nazism (at least in terms of the number of victims). Two contributors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, decided to dissociate themselves publicly from the main theses of the introduction.
The main problems with Courtois' introduction were a fixation on figures and a failure to highlight not only similarities but also significant distinctions between Communist and Nazi systems of mass terror and extermination. Courtois opened the door to a practice that continues to haunt discussions about the criminality of Communism, especially in the former Soviet bloc: "an international competition for martyrdom" (in the words of Timothy Synder). Courtois and others who amplified his model of analysis seemed to believe that "more killing would bring more meaning." Indeed, one of the central risks incumbent in the comparison between Fascism and Communism is that it can unleash, if its stakes are gaining the upper hand in a competition over round numbers of victims, what Snyder called "martyrological imperialism." And indeed, as "millions of ghosts of people who never lived" are released in various countries' cultures, the memory of radical evil offers no meaning except for rationalizations in the service of national politics and discourses of historical entitlement.
In comparing the number of victims under Communist regimes (between 85 and 100 million) to the number of people who perished under or because of Nazism (25 million), Courtois downplayed a few crucial facts. In this respect, some of his critics were not wrong. First, as an expansionist global phenomenon, Communism lasted between 1917 and the completion of The Black Book (think of North Korea, China, Cuba, and Vietnam, where it is still alive, if not well). National Socialism lasted from 1933 to 1945. Second, we simply do not know what price Nazism would have taken in victims had Hitler won the war. The logical hypothesis (supported by evidence such as the differences between how the Nazis implemented the day-to-day occupation of Poland and how they occupied Holland) is that not only Jews and Gypsies but also millions of Slavs and other "racially unfit" individuals would have died. According to Ian Kershaw, "The General Plan for the east commissioned by Himmler envisaged the deportation over the subsequent years of 32 million persons, mainly Slavs, beyond the Urals and into Western Siberia." And, as the plan for resettling Jews has shown, such designs were themselves genocidal. Christopher Browning and Lewis Siegelbaum excellently summarized, for Nazi Germany, the core post-1941 identitarian mutation that created the potential for cumulative, irradiating racial exterminism: "The Nazi assertion of German identity as the 'master race' meant the destruction of both the freedom and the identity of those whom they ruled. Victory and empire completed the transition of the Volksgemeinschaft from the restoration illusion of a unified community of the German people to the Nazi vision of a racial community waging eternal struggle-a Kampfgemeinschaft." As for the political opponents of Hitler's reign of terror, suffice it to remember Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.
Third, in the case of Communism one can identify an inner dynamic that contrasted the original promises to the sordidly criminal practices. In other words, there was a search for reforms, and even for socialism with a human face, within the Communist world, but such a thing would have been unthinkable under Nazism. The chasm between theory and practice, or at least between the moral-humanist Marxian (or socialist) creed, and the Leninist or Stalinist (or Maoist, or Khmer Rouge) experiments was more than an intellectual fantasy. Furthermore, whereas Sovietism and Nazism were equally scornful of traditional morality and legality in their drive to eliminate enemies, one needs to remember that for Lenin and his followers "re-education," cruel and humiliating as it was, could offer at least some chance for survival for either the class enemy or their offspring. Diaries, letters, transcripts of inquiry commissions, and other public and private transcripts have shown the extent to which "speaking Bolshevik" (Kotkin) or becoming "ordinary Stalinists" (Figes) could become a mechanism on social (re)integration. In the words of an author who has extensively dealt with this issue:
The road to Communist conversion, significantly narrowed during the era of sweeping purges, to be sure, always remained negotiable, though it could be very difficult indeed. The fact that a successful manipulation of the official discourse enabled at least a few to clear their names by distancing themselves from convicted family members points to the importance of the voluntarist kernel in Communism. The right to petition, to write a complaint protesting one's innocence, all this while using public language, did not disappear even during the worst days of the Great Purge. Neither class background nor national origins were an insurmountable obstacle.
This was not the case with the Nazi treatment of the Jews. As Tony Judt puts it, "If we are not to wallow in helpless despair when it comes to explaining why it came to this, we must keep in view a crucial analytical contrast: there is a difference between regimes that exterminate people in the inhuman pursuit of an arbitrary objective and those whose objective is extermination itself." For the Nazis, and for Hitler in particular, the demonization of the Jews, and implicitly their excision, was part and parcel of the regime's millenarian vision of national salvation. Hitler described himself in July 1941 as "the Robert Koch of politics." The Nazi dictator further explained the comparison: "He [Koch] found the bacillus of tuberculosis and through that showed medical scholarship new ways. I discovered the Jews as the bacillus and ferment of all social decomposition. Their ferment. And I have proved one thing: that a state can live without Jews; that the economy, culture, art, etc. can exist without Jews and indeed better. That is the worst blow dealt to the Jews."
The most important pitfall of Courtois' introduction is the fact that, by mostly turning a blind eye to these differences, his explanation for the flawed anamnesis regarding Communism's criminality opened the door to dubious interpretations. He stated that "after 1945 the Jewish genocide became a byword for modern barbarism, the epitome of twentieth-century mass terror. After initially disputing the unique nature of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, the communists soon grasped the benefits involved in immortalizing the Holocaust as a way of rekindling antifascism on a more systematic basis. ... More recently, a single-minded focus on the Jewish genocide in an attempt to characterize the Holocaust as a unique atrocity has also prevented an assessment of other episodes of comparable magnitude in the Communist world." This is at best a distortion. As Tony Judt, Ian Kershaw, Jürgen Kocka, and other prominent historians have shown, it was only after 1970, or even after 1980, that the Holocaust became a central topic in the analysis and understanding of the Third Reich. The difficulties related to a recognition of Communist mass crimes are due to the long decades of state-controlled information in those countries, the belatedness of archival openings, and the nervous reaction of left-wing circles in Western Europe (especially in France, Greece, and Spain) to what they decry as a political instrumentalization of the past.
There were two types of reaction to Courtois' argument. Reviewers such as Scammell, Judt, Bartov, and Herf admitted that he was justified to a certain extent. Jeffrey Herf, for example, argued that "despite some important exceptions, Courtois has a point: In Western academia, scholars who chose to focus on the crimes of communism were and remain a minority and face the career-blocking danger of being labeled as right-wingers." But, as Scammel and Judt pointed out, this is not a reason for imposing a choice between "our memory of Auschwitz and our memory of the Gulag, because history has mandated that we remember them both." The Black Book builds a successful and convincing case for the equation between Communism and radical evil, thus placing it in the same category as Fascism. And most recently, this position has been endorsed in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and discussed in the EU Parliament, during the presentation of the Prague Declaration (signed by, among others, Václav Havel, Joachim Gauck, and Vytautas Landsbergis). For example, the OSCE's "Resolution on Divided Europe Reunited: Promoting Human Rights and Civil Liberties in the OSCE Region in the Twenty-first Century" states:
Noting that in the twentieth century European countries experienced two major totalitarian regimes, Nazi and Stalinist, which brought about genocide, violations of human rights and freedoms, war crimes and crimes against humanity, acknowledging the uniqueness of the Holocaust ... The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly reconfirms its united stand against all totalitarian rule from whatever ideological background ... Urges the participating States: a. to continue research into and raise public awareness of the totalitarian legacy; b. to develop and improve educational tools, programs and activities, most notably for younger generations, on totalitarian history, human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, pluralism, democracy and tolerance; ... Expresses deep concern at the glorification of the totalitarian regimes.
Under the circumstances, one can hardly see the point in trying, as Courtois seemed to do (setting the tone for further rationalizations by others in later years), to appropriate the image of ultimate evil. His argument was turned into cannon fodder by those who wished to dismiss The Black Book altogether. French journalist Nicolas Weil emphatically declared at the time that the book was "an ideological war machine against the theory of the Shoah's uniqueness" which "minimized the memory of the brown period." One cannot agree with such political coloring of the Black Book, but the volume did indeed generate a war of numbers, words, and memories that sometimes, especially in Eastern and Central Europe, had direct or indirect negationist and normalizing tonalities. An implicit causal relationship was established between remembering Jewish suffering and "forgetting" the pain of others, thus setting up a new wave of anti-Semitism in the public sphere.
The comparison between Communism and Nazism had been long sensitive in Russian, East European, and Western analyses. Courtois pointed to the disturbing writings of Vassily Grossman, the author of the novel Life and Fate, a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature (and coauthor with Ilya Ehrenburg, in the aftermath of World War II, of The Black Book of Nazi Crimes against Soviet Jews, a terrifying report that the Stalinists banned). Both in that novel and in his shorter book Forever Flowing, Grossman insisted that the Stalinist destruction of the kulaks was fundamentally analogous to Nazi genocidal politics against groups considered racially inferior. The persecution and extermination of the Jews was as much a consequence of ideological tenets held sacred by the Nazi zealots as the destruction of the kulaks during Stalinist collectivization campaigns. One author with extensive knowledge of the Soviet archives argued, "It seems that Stalin and his henchmen believed in irredeemable, hopeless individuals who had to be eliminated no less than Hitler did."
Constructing the Enemy
Millions of human lives were destroyed as a result of the conviction that the sorry state of mankind could be corrected if only the ideologically designated "vermin" were eliminated. This ideological drive to purify humanity was rooted in the scientistic cult of technology and the firm belief that History (always capitalized) had endowed the revolutionary elites (of extreme left or extreme right) with the mission to get rid of the "superfluous populations" (as Hannah Arendt put it). Communist regimes permanently tried to excise the segments of the society that it designated as potentially inimical to the realization of utopia. And, as Gerlach and Werth showed in the case of the Soviet Union, "the more defined and precise the Bolsheviks' envisioned order became, the greater the number of those that were forcibly excluded from it." In like manner, they created "a world of enemies, and ultimately there was no other solution to the threat that these imagined enemies posed than their total physical annihilation." In this sense, the two authors conclude by stating that "mass terror was a Soviet variant of the 'final solution.'" Historian Eric Weitz's concept of racialization falls in the same category. He considered it useful in explaining the way Soviet authorities alternated the designation of population categories subjected to terror with direct consequences regarding their imprisonment, execution, deportation, and so on: "It helps capture the malleability of assigned identities, how groups perceived as nations or classes can, in specific historical circumstances, come to be viewed as so utterly distinct from the dominant groups that only the term race captures the immense divide that is created. And the term also captures how, in different circumstances, populations can become 'de-racialized,' as happened officially to many of the purged nationalities after Josef Stalin's death."
Weitz's approach is just another entry on the long list of scholars who attempted to make sense of "the cycles of violence" (in the words of Nicolas Werth) that became the norm in the Soviet Union. At this point, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that there was an "embarrassing uniformity in the means to salvation advocated by the Nazis and the Communists, namely science (and the practices of reshaping the bodies politic accordingly). The crux of the matter was that in the Soviet Union (as for other Communist regimes) the population was organized based on criteria of exclusion and disenfranchisement according to the ideological imperatives and developmental tasks set up by the party. As Golfo Alexopoulos states, "In the Soviet Union, there were citizens and there were citizens." As in Nazi Germany, citizenship rights increasingly morphed into a boundary between belonging and criminalization, between "the national self and the enemy others," an indicator of friends and foes. The principle of the elect that was at the core of the Leninist theory of the historical subject realizing utopia was reflected in citizenship laws. Those deemed unworthy to hold and exercise the rights assigned to the Soviet body politic were disenfranchised, which in the case of Communist polities equaled de facto denaturalization and statelessness. Moreover, during certain periods in the evolution of these regimes, this rightlessness became an inherited disease. Under Stalin, "the deprivation of rights extended to entire kin groups, as family units were often punished collectively. The Stalinist state viewed enemies of various kinds as defined by ties of kinship; thus entire families lost their rights as a group. Class enemies (Nepmen, traders, kulaks, lishentsy) and so-called 'enemies of the people,' as well as enemy nations (Germans, Poles, Koreans, Greeks, Chinese)-both Soviet citizens and foreign subjects-were rounded up as kin groups. The disloyalty of the fathers was thought to be passed down to the sons. Both rightlessness and statelessness became inherited traits."
If one associates such findings with analyses of the camps' population profile or with the nature of terror and victims of mass violence under Communist regimes (such as those provided by the authors of The Black Book), then the notion of "class genocide" advanced by Stéphane Courtois (Dan Diner uses the term sociocide) gains considerable weight. The victimization, imprisonment, and even execution of "kin groupings" based on a blanket, inheritable identity exclusively and commonly applied to all its members comes asymptotically close to the type of violence presupposed by the concept of genocide, as it is internationally defined. At times in the history of almost all Communist regimes (what Stephen Kotkin called "re-revolutionizing the revolution"), there are distinct stretches of perpetrating genocide against their subject populations. The crucial difference from Nazism, however, is that these practices were built into the system by consequence. Even if one agrees with Halfin that "because guilt in the Soviet Union was always a personal concept, the victim died not as an anonymous number but as a concrete individual convicted for specific actions," deterministic victimhood did become a state norm under Communism. Even the internal debates within the Bolshevik party ruling circles testify to this point.
In 1945, chief ideologue Andrei Zhdanov criticized automatic purges based on class origin: "The 'biological' approach to people is very widespread among us, when the existence of some not entirely 'convenient' relatives or other, frequently long dead, is made a criterion of the political loyalty of a worker. Such 'biologists,' producing their distinctive theory of 'inheritance,' try to look at living communists through a magnifying glass." Even Stalin, in the statement signaling his retreat from the Great Terror, admitted in 1938 the practice of indiscriminate mass purges (which at the time had harrowing consequences for those subjected to them): "It is time to understand that Bolshevik vigilance consists in essence in the ability to unmask the enemy regardless of how clever and cunning he may be, irrespective of how he adorns himself, and not in indiscriminate or 'on the off-chance' expulsions [from the party], by the tens and hundreds, of everyone who comes within reach." The very notion of revolutionary vigilance treaded a thin line between exclusion and physical elimination. At the point of the radicalization of revolutionary utopia in action, the obsession of Lenin and Stalin (and for that matter other Communist dictators) with cleaning and purifying the "human garden," Communism's focus on excision, transmogrified into extermination.
Arguments for Comparisons
As a matter of principle, the comparison between Nazism and Communism strikes me as both morally and scholarly justifiable, at least because we can see enough similar as well as dissimilar elements to justify such a comparison. To deny this comparison (which after all inspired one of the great works of political and moral philosophy of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, and was developed not by right-wingers but by such democratic socialists as the Mensheviks) is a proof of self-imposed intellectual narrow-mindedness. Michael Scammell emphasized that "we cannot choose between our memory of Auschwitz and our memory of the Gulag, because history has mandated that we remember them both." Scholars are not judges, and the confusion between these two roles can make some scholars oblivious to important distinctions. Comparison serves the work of understanding when it is used to highlight both similarities and differences.
François Furet insisted in his correspondence with Ernst Nolte that there is something absolutely evil in Nazi practice, both at the level of original intention and the implementation of utopian goals. This is not to minimize in any way the abominations of Communism, but simply to recognize that, comparable as the two mass horrors are, there is something truly singular about the Holocaust and the manic perfection and single-mindedness of the Nazi Final Solution. Nazi ideology was founded upon what historian Enzo Traverso called "redemptive violence." Its ethos merges anti-Semitism with "a 'religion of nature' based on blind faith in biological determinism to the point where genocide itself came to represent both 'a disinfection, a purification-in short an ecological measure,' and a ritual act of sacrifice performed to redeem history from chaos and decadence [my emphasis]."
In the case of the Soviet Union, after the war on the peasants, the Stalinist repressive machine, especially during the Great Terror, attacked all social strata. This form of repression had a distinctive volatile and unpredictable character. Hysteria was universal and unstoppable. Any citizen could be targeted. From this point of view, one could argue that Stalinist terror was more inclusive, amorphous, but also porous because it represents both "the extreme penalization of types of social behavior" and victimization based on "political-ideological standards for rooting out deviant language and 'bad' class origins." Starting with Lenin and worsening with Stalin, the comprehensive grasp of state violence in the USSR revealed "an instant readiness to declare war on the rest of society" (as Scammel says). The result was that, according to Nicolas Werth, one in five adult males passed through the gulag. Here, one should also keep in mind the post-1945 campaign against "female thieves" (in reality war widows) or the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility to twelve in 1935.
In Nazi Germany terror was unleashed mainly against minorities (Jews, Roma, the disabled, or gays) and foreign populations. In the Soviet Union, terror brought about two worlds: the Soviet social body, made up of politically validated people, and the gulag, with the party and its repressive institutions mediating between the two realms. While in Nazi Germany the regime sought "its victims mainly outside the Volksgemeinschaft, the Soviet populace was the main victim of its own regime." In other words, the war conducted by Stalin and the Leninist parties was internal, "a catastrophe ostensibly launched as a social upheaval, appropriating the idiom of class struggle and civil war." Along similar lines, Richard Overy provides an excellent definition of the gulag, which in his view "symbolizes the political corruption and hypocrisy of a regime formally committed to human progress, but capable of enslaving millions in the process." The state-building Stalinist blueprint, the one that became the core of the "civilizational transfer" implied by exporting revolution or Sovietization, was "dialectically" bent on purification and inclusiveness. This paradox is best expressed by the contrast between the 1936 constitution's description of a society made up of "non-antagonistic classes" and Stalin's November 1937 call for eradicating not just the enemies of the people but also their "kith and kin."
One can conclude that, in the Soviet Union at different stages, certain groups were indeed designated targets, but the exercise of terror applied to individuals of all social origins (workers, peasants, intellectuals, party and military cadres, former middle and high bourgeois, priests, even secret police officials). Soviet terror had a distinctly random character, for its sole purpose was the building of Communism through the total homogenization of society. Its rationale was the moral-political unity of the community. From this point of view, the violence inflicted on the population was ideologically functionalized. It never achieved the industrial scope of the Holocaust. It was, however, an end in itself. It was the other face of the Bolshevik regime's "modern agenda of subjectivization." Those individuals who failed to become "conscious citizens engaged in the program of building socialism of their own will," those who failed to understand their obligations as members of "the first socialist state," those who erred in revolutionary vigilance, in other words "the failed hermeneuticists" of the great leap out of the empire of necessity became excess to the needs of the Soviet state. The Bolsheviks were interested in refashioning the human soul. The life of the individual could make sense only if it immersed itself in the "general stream of life" of the Soviet collective. It is no surprise that, as Orlando Figes remarks, the Russian word for conscience (sovest') as a private dialogue with the inner self almost disappeared from official use after 1917. On October 26, 1932, Stalin described the full nature of the Bolshevik transformation: "Your tanks will be worth nothing if the soul (dusha) in them is rotten. No, the 'production' of souls is more important than the production of tanks."
In the summer of 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, the output of the Bolshevik industry of souls was already on display: over 40,000 participants gathered for a physical culture parade on the Red Square entitled "The Parade of the Powerful Stalin Breed [plemia]" (my emphasis). At the end of the celebrations of the first decade of the existence of Fascist Italy, the newspaper Gioventù fascista gave an almost archetypical description of the totalitarian body politic: "With Fascism, a crowd has become a harmony of souls, a perfect fit of citizens actively participating in the great life of the State. ... [T]his was a crowd with self-knowledge, aware of its obedience, its faith, and its fighting mettle, a crowd serene and secure, trusting in its Leader, in a State. ... This was no faceless throng, but an image given shape and order by spirits educated in the epic of these new times; not an amorphous mass, but an amalgam of fresh values and intelligence." The imagery employed by the Italian journalists would have surely been fitting for the rows of thousands of Soviet New Men and Women participating in the parade of the "powerful Stalin breed," expressing the joy of these crowds celebrating their happiness and fortune to be offspring of utopia made reality under the guidance of the beloved Helmsman (Vozhd). What is striking in the passage, from the point of view of our discussion of Fascism and Communism, is the constancy of the signified despite the interchangeability of the key signifiers.
Even when it did not take on a directly exterminist profile (e.g., mass executions, death marches, and state-engineered starvation), Soviet terror took the form of forced labor whose economic utility was highly questionable. I disagree with Dan Diner on this point, for I consider that forced labor in the gulag had a primarily pedagogical and corrective character. In both Nazism and Stalinism, the camps fundamentally served an ideological function; all other aspects that could be assigned to them were epiphenomena to the ideological driving force of the two dictatorships. In the Soviet Union, the labor camps were "a cultural model," a "peculiar wedding of discipline and representation," which ensured that those inside would be trained and those outside terrorized. Most importantly, this negative model of organization within the Communist space was employed for the structuring and disciplining of even positive social milieus, such as factories and universities. Until 1956, the gulag was the blueprint of human management in the USSR. As Orlando Figes notes, it was "more than a source of labor for building projects like the White Sea Canal. It was itself a form of industrialization." I would go even further: the gulag was the normative design at the basis of the Communist project of modernity, the original source of the misdevelopment brought about by all Soviet-type regimes.
Exploitation by the state had, indeed, its productive purpose, but it was a consequence and an extension of the institution of the camp and deportation site as places of anthropological transformation. It is true that "the Final Solution was a project annulling even what are broadly considered universally valid standards of self-preservation." But I think it is misguided to force upon Communist terror qualifications on the basis of circumstances and utility while ignoring its purifying and standardizing motifs. To paraphrase Timothy Snyder, Stalinism's project of self-colonization by mass terror was founded upon the indifference to individual human life. Stalinism and Nazism's terror were "built into the world view of each dictator and each dictatorship; it was essential to the system, not a mere instrument of control, and it was practiced at every level of society." Under Communism mass murder became a certainty because of the inevitable violence resulting from the corroboration of the principle of the state (gosudarstvennost) and the struggle to create order out of what Leninist leaders perceived as stikhiinost, social chaos.
Moreover, Timothy Snyder warns that if we single-mindedly focus on Auschwitz and the gulag, "we fail to notice that over a period of twelve years, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe, one defined more or less by today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia." Snyder, while stressing the singularity of Nazi atrocities, demonstrates what he calls "the absence of economics": "Although the history of mass killing has much to do with economic calculation, memory shuns anything that might seem to make murder appear rational. ... What is crucial is that the ideology that legitimated mass death was also a vision of economic development. If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing, it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development: attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality [my emphasis]." In Bloodlands Snyder takes his point further. He argues, in his reassessment of the monstrous chasm generated by the exterminist policies of Stalinism and Nazism, for a revision of our premises for comprehending such cataclysm: "Fourteen million people were deliberately murdered by two regimes over twelve years. This is the moment that we have scarcely begun to understand let alone master." During the twentieth century, "history had truly become a delinquent." Snyder is right: the only solution to this pathology of modernity is "the ethical commitment to the individual." This is also the fundamental lesson of the revolutions of 1989, the legacy of dissidents like Leszek Kołakowski, Jan Patočka, Václav Havel, Jacek Kuroń, Bronisław Geremek, Adam Michnik, János Kis, and George Konrád. That is exactly why I consider the revolutions of 1989 the endpoint of the historical era ruled by utopia.
The most important conclusion to draw from the comparison of terror dynamics in the two cases is that both regimes (radical Leninism or Stalinism and Nazism) were genocidal. Norman Naimark excellently describes this reality: "The two great tyrannies of the twentieth century simply share too much in common to reject out of hand attempts to classify and order them in the history of political systems and genocide." Analytical distinctions between them are certainly important, but their common contempt for the bourgeois state of law, human rights, and the universality of humankind, regardless of spurious race and class distinctions, is in my view beyond doubt. Any student of the "age of extremes" would have to acknowledge that Leninism contained all the political and ideological ingredients of the totalitarian order (the party's monopoly on power, ideological uniformity and regimentation, censorship, demonization of the "people's enemy," a besieged fortress mentality, secret police terror, concentration camps, and, no less important, the obsession with shaping the "New Man"). To paraphrase Dan Diner, Communism and National Socialism, because of the terrible crimes they committed, "embedded themselves in the memory of the twentieth century as twins of terror."
For totalitarian experiments to be successful, terror and ideology are mandatory instruments for exerting power. This statement by Boris Souvarine, the author of a path-breaking and still impressively valid biography of Stalin published in the mid-1930s, perfectly encapsulates the convergent nature of Communism and Fascism: "In the early years of the Russian Revolution, it was easy to put everything down to the idea of 'Slavic soul'; yet the events that were reputed to be exclusively Slavic phenomena have subsequently been witnessed in Italy and Germany. When the beast in man is unleashed, the same consequences are visible everywhere, irrespective of whether the man in question is Latin, German, or Slav, however different he may appear on the surface." The cold pathological rationality of the Nazi war on the Jews, including the use of mass murder technologies at Auschwitz and the other death factories, could not be anticipated by the Marxist apostate Boris Souvarine in this diagnosis written in 1937. Nevertheless, he was right in regarding the strange blending of barbarism and derailed modernity in the ideological despotisms of the extreme Left and Right.
Again, comparing the two absolute disgraces of the twentieth century, the gulag and the Holocaust, often leads to misunderstandings and injured feelings among victims of one or another of these monstrosities. This is regrettable because, in all fairness, none of these experiences will ever be remembered enough. Yes, as Alain Besançon points out, there is a kind of amnesia regarding the Communist crimes, just as there is a hypermnesia in relation to the Shoah. But as the French historian shows, this is not because there is an attempt by one group to monopolize the memory of suffering in the twentieth century. The origins of this phenomenon are to be looked for in the fact that Communism was often regarded as progressive, anti-imperialist, and, more important still, anti-Fascist. Communism knew how to pose as the heir to the Enlightenment, and many were duped by this rationalistic and humanistic pretense. So, in my view, the research agenda initially suggested by The Black Book presupposed a rethinking not only of Communism and Fascism but also of their opposites, anti-Fascism and anti-Communism. In other words, not all those who resisted Hitler were friends of democracy, and not all those who rebelled against Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Castro were bona fide liberals. The Black Book forced many in France, Germany, the United States, and, if it need be recalled, East-Central Europe to admit that those "who told of the marvels of the Soviet Union served to legitimize the massacre of millions. ... [They] fooled their own societies into seeing the millions of corpses as a great promise for a better future." The uproar caused by The Black Book helped bring to the fore the need both for remembrance of Communism's crimes and for reassessment of the massive killing and dying perpetrated by so many regimes in the name of this ideology with the endorsement of those who preferred to keep their eyes and ears firmly shut.
As far as the anamnesis of Leninist violence, one fundamental problem is that the subjects of trauma mostly belong to social categories rather than national, ethnic ones (as in the case of the Holocaust). This issue is directly connected with the difference discussed above: Communism was at war with its own society. Even under its most moderate avatars (Kadar's Hungary, Gorbachev's USSR, or contemporary China), when a section of society threatened the existence of the system, the repressive (quasi-terroristic) levers were activated to isolate and extirpate the "pest hole." Under the circumstances, Diner's framing of the dilemma is noteworthy: "The memory of 'sociocide,' class murder, is archived, not transmitted from one generation to another as is the case with genocide. ... How can crimes that elude the armature of an ethnic, and thus long-term, memory be kept alive in collective remembrance? Can crimes perpetrated not in the name of a collective, such as the nation, but in the name of a social construction, such as class, be memorialized in an appropriate form?" It was often the case that such a query was solved through the artificial creation of "ethnic armature." In the former Soviet bloc, Communism was sold as mainly a Russian import, while local leaders fell into a vaguely defined category of collaborators or "elements foreign to the nation." It was just a step from the last coinage to the rejuvenation of the old specter of Zydokomuna. But the crux of the problem is that, despite the efforts of Courtois and the other authors of the Black Book, a unitary death tool might be possible but a collective, transnational memory of Communism's crimes does not exist. In the early twenty-first century, through the various pan-European documents that have been adopted by the European Union or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the first steps in this direction have been made. The Leninist experiment (that is, the world Communist movement) dissolved into national narratives of trauma and guilt upon the ideology's extinction. Terror and mass murder seem to still keep Communist states separated in terms of both memory and history. And considerable challenges remain in integrating the massive trauma caused by Communist regimes into what we call today European history.
The problem is that most of the crimes are also crimes of national Communist regimes; that is to say, the gulag (I use the term here as a metaphor for all mass terror under Communism) is also a fratricide. Additionally, these regimes endured for more than a score of years, as they domesticized and entered into a post-totalitarian phase. How to measure accomplished lifetimes against stolen ones? One possible solution is to accept the fact that Leninism is radical evil, so that its crimes can be universally (or continentally) remembered and memorialized. This way, unilateral appropriation of trauma, ethnicization of terror, and collective silence can be prevented. Each individual case could maintain its specificities but would, at the same time, be part of a larger historical phenomenon, thus being assimilated to public consciousness. The authors of the Black Book condemned what they considered both an institutionalized and informal amnesia about the true nature of Communist regimes. Their accounts were supposed to provoke the necessary intimacy and ineffability for a sacralized memory of the gulag. Since then, some headway has been made along this path, but European identification with sites of its memory (in various countries) is still pending. We should not forget that in 2000, in Stockholm, during the international conference on the Holocaust (commemorating fifty-five years since the liberation of Auschwitz), the participants stated that "the normative basis of a transnational political community is defined by exposing and remembering inhuman barbarism, cruelty and unimaginable humiliation, which are unthinkable on the background of our collective existence." To paraphrase Helmut Dubiel, the traumatic contemplation of absolute horror and of the total miscarriage of civility legitimizes an ethics that goes beyond the border of any individual state.
To return to the Black Book, I wish to emphasize that the key point concerning its legacy is the legitimacy of the comparison between National Socialism and Leninism. I agree here with the Polish-French historian Krzysztof Pomian's approach:
It is undeniable that mass crimes did take place, as well as crimes against humanity, and this is the merit of the team that put together The Black Book: to have brought the debate regarding twentieth century communism into public discussion; in this respect, as a whole, beyond the reservations that one can hold concerning one page or another, it has played a remarkable role.... To say that the Soviets were worse because their system made more victims, or that the Nazis were worse because they exterminated the Jews, are two positions which are unacceptable, and the debate carried on under these terms is shocking and obscene.
Indeed, the challenge is to avoid any "comparative trivialization," or any form of competitive "martyrology" and to admit that, beyond the similarities, these extreme systems had unique features, including the rationalization of power, the definition of the enemy, and designated goals. The point, therefore, is to retrieve memory, to organize understanding of these experiments, and to try to make sense of their functioning, methods, and goals.
Some chapters of The Black Book succeed better than others, but as a whole the undertaking was justified. It was obviously not a neutral scholarly effort, but an attempt to comprehend some of the most haunting moral questions of our times: How was it possible for millions of individuals to enroll in revolutionary movements that aimed at the enslavement, exclusion, elimination, and finally extermination of whole categories of fellow human beings? What was the role of ideological hubris in these criminal practices? How could sophisticated intellectuals like the French poet Louis Aragon write odes to Stalin's secret police? How could Aragon believe in "the blue eyes of the revolution that burn with cruel necessity"? And how could the once acerbic critic of the Bolsheviks, the acclaimed proletarian writer Maxim Gorky, turn into an abject apologist for Stalinist pseudoscience, unabashedly calling for experiments on human beings: "Hundreds of human guinea pigs are required. This will be a true service to humanity, which will be far more important and useful than the extermination of tens of millions of healthy human beings for the comfort of a miserable, physically, psychologically, and morally degenerate class of predators and parasites." The whole tragedy of Communism lies within this hallucinating statement: the vision of a superior elite whose utopian goals sanctify the most barbaric methods, the denial of the right to life to those who are defined as "degenerate parasites and predators," the deliberate dehumanization of the victims, and what Alain Besançon correctly identified as the ideological perversity at the heart of totalitarian thinking-the falsification of the idea of good (la falsification du bien).
I have strong reservations regarding theoretical distinctions on the basis of which some historians reach the conclusion that Communism is "more evil" than Nazism. In fact, they were both evil, even radically evil. Public awareness of Communist violence and terror has been delayed by the durability of Leninism's pretense of universality. Because of projection, it took a long time to achieve an agreement that Bolshevism was not another path to democracy and that its victims were overwhelmingly innocent. One cannot deny that Communism represented for many the only alternative (in my foreword I discuss a personal family example), especially with the rise of Fascism and of Hitler, at a time when liberal democracy seemed compromised.
Communism was consistently presented as synonymous with hope, but the dream turned into a nightmare: Communism "not only murdered millions, but also took away the hope." Communism was founded upon a "a version of a thirst for the sacred with a concomitant revulsion against the profane." The Soviet "Great Experiment's master narrative involves the repurification or resacerdotalization of space." This is why Furet, in his closing remarks to Passing of an Illusion, states that upon the moral and political collapse of Leninism we "are condemned to live in the world as it is" (p. 502). With a significantly stronger brush, Martin Malia argued that "any realistic account of communist crime would effectively shut the door on Utopia; and too many good souls in this unjust world cannot abandon hope for an absolute end to inequality (and some less good souls will always offer them 'rational' curative nostrums). And so, all comrade-questers after historical truth should gird their loins for a very Long March indeed before Communism is accorded its fair share of absolute evil." And, indeed, two important registers of criticism directed toward the process of revealing and remembering the crimes of Communist regimes were that of anti-anti-utopianism and anticapitalism. I will not dwell on the validity of counterpoising Communism with capitalism; it is a dead end. It just reproduces the original Manichean Marxist revolutionary ethos of the Communist Manifesto. It is endearing to a certain extent, for one's beliefs should be respected, but it is irrelevant if we seek to understand the tragedy of the twentieth century. The employment of anti-anti-utopianism in the discussion of left-wing totalitarianism is just another way of avoiding the truth. To reject the legitimacy of the comparison between National Socialism and Bolshevism on the basis of their distinct aims is utterly indecent and logically flawed. Ian Kershaw criticizes arguments based on the
different aims and intentions of Nazism and Bolshevism-aims which were wholly inhumane and negative in the former case and ultimately humane and positive in the latter case. The argument is based upon a deduction from the future (neither verifiable nor feasible) to the present, a procedure which in strict logic is not permissible. ... The purely functional point that communist terror was "positive" because it was "directed towards a complete and radical change in society" whereas "fascist (i.e., Nazi) terror reached its highest point with the destruction of the Jews" and "made no attempt to alter human behavior or build a genuinely new society" is, apart from the debatable assertion in the last phrase, a cynical value judgment on the horrors of the Stalinist terror [my emphasis].
Recognizing Communism as hope soaked in revolutionary utopia is truly a specter to turn away from. This hope materialized as radical evil can only lead to massacre, because "il cherche à s'incarner, et ce faisant, il ne peut faire autrement qu'éliminer ceux qui n'appartiennent pas à la bonne classe sociale, ceux qui résistent à ce projet d'espoir [it looks to take flesh, and doing this, it can only eliminate those who do not belong to the right social class, those who resist this project of hope]." Ronald Suny was right in emphasizing that we should not forget that the original aspirations of socialism "were the emancipatory impulses of the Russian Revolution as well." It is difficult to see how this affects the "duty of remembrance" regarding Leninism's crimes. Not to mention that, as early as 1918, with the Declaration of the Rights of Toiling and Exploited People, the Bolsheviks detailed their ideal of social justice into categories of disenfranchised people (lishentsy), the prototype taxonomy for the terror that was to follow in the later years. Tony Judt puts it bluntly: "The road to Communist hell was undoubtedly paved with good (Marxist) intentions. But so what? ... From the point of view of the exiled, humiliated, tortured, maimed or murdered victims, of course, it's all the same." Furthermore, such shameful commonalities between socialism and Bolshevism should actually be an incentive to call things by their real name when it comes to the radical evil that Communism in power was throughout the twentieth century. The hope that Bolshevism brought to so many was a lie. The full impact of the lie can only be measured by the nightmare of the millions it murdered. The moral and political bankruptcy of the "pure" original ideals cannot remain hidden just for the sake of safeguarding their pristine state. The uproar provoked by the Black Book indicated a "continuing reluctance to take at face value the overwhelming evidence of crimes committed by communist regimes." Ten years after the book's publication, some things have changed, but much more remains to be done. To return to Kołakowski's metaphor, the devil not only incarnated itself in history, it also wrecked our memory of it.
Beyond debates about how to remember, compare, and analyze Communism and Fascism, there is a bottom line that all can accept. Perhaps with minimal difficulty all can agree with Emilio Gentile's conclusion that "totalitarian experiments, even if they were imperfect and flawed, involved, conditioned, transformed, deformed and ended the existence of millions of human beings. In no uncertain terms, this was determined by the conviction of the principal protagonists that they were the forebears of a new humanity, the builders of a new civilization, the interpreters of a new truth, the repositories for the discrimination between good and evil, and the masters of the destinies of those caught up in their enterprise." At the end of the day, reflecting on the "why" of the whole Communist experience, one needs to remember that Leninism emerged from the meeting between a certain direction of European revolutionary socialism, one that could in no way come to terms with the established liberal order and the rights of the individual, and the Russian tradition of conspiratorial violence. The mixture of revolutionary anticapitalism and ultranationalist German racism led to Hitler's chiliastic dreams of Aryan supremacy. At a speech in the Berlin Sports Palace on February 10, 1933, Hitler formulated with religious fervor his "predestined mission" to resurrect the German nation: "For I cannot divest of my faith in my people, cannot dissociate myself from the conviction that this nation will one day rise again, cannot divorce myself from my love for this, my people, and I cherish the firm conviction that the hour will come at last in which the millions who despise us today will stand by us and with us will hail the new, hard-won and painfully acquired German Reich we have created together, the new German kingdom of greatness and power and glory and justice. Amen." Similarly, Mussolini confessed in My Autobiography that "I felt the deep need for an original conception capable of bringing about a more fruitful rhythm of history in a new period of history. It was necessary to lay the foundation of a new civilization." Fascism for Mussolini was the solution to "the Spiritual Crisis of Italy." The same frenzy for "a new temporality and nomos," alternative and opposite to that of liberal modernity, was also at the core of Communism. Such a sense of mission was apparent at the Congress of Victors (the Seventeenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) in January-February 1934, as the Soviet regime entered the second five-year plan and finalized the Cultural Revolution, after Stalin had murdered, starved, and deported millions of kulaks in Ukraine and forcibly resettled several ethnic groups, and as he consolidated his position as undisputed leader of the Bolshevik party. At such a "glorious moment," almost two and a half years before the beginning of the Great Terror, Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich praised Stalin as the creator "of the greatest revolution that human history has ever known."
The plight of Communism's millions of victims (many of whom had once espoused the generous promises of the Marxian doctrine) cannot be explained without reference to the Leninist party and its attempt to forcibly impose the will of a small group of fanatics over reticent and more often than not hostile populations. Mikhail Bakunin put it most aptly in an angry letter disavowing Sergey Nechaev's apotheosis of destructive violence and psychological terrorism: "Out of that cruel renunciation and extreme fanaticism you now want to make a general principle applicable to the whole community. You want crazy things, impossible things, the total negation of nature, man, and society!" Communism and Fascism believed that fundamental change was possible. They engineered radical revolutionary projects in order to answer this belief. However, they enacted their utopias with complete disregard for individual human life. Their frantic acceleration of human development engendered the materialization of radical evil in history.
Add source code 14W0162 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more