241. Understanding Radical Evil: Communism, Fascism and the Lessons of the 20th Century

By
Vladimir Tismaneanu

The comparison between Nazism and Communism is justified on both moral and scholarly grounds. But scholars are not judges, and the confusion between these two roles can make some scholars oblivious to important distinctions. French historian Francois Furet, in his correspondence with German historian Ernst Nolte, insisted that there is something absolutely evil, both at 1) the level of original intention and 2) the implementation of the utopian goals in Nazi practice. Comparable as the two mass horrors of Nazism and Communism are, however, there is something singular about the Holocaust.

But can one compare the two ideologies by examining their essentially different visions of human nature, progress, and politics without losing axiological distinctions? Or was the essential centrality of the concentration camp the lone common denominator between Communism and Fascism?

My analysis agrees with French political philosopher Claude Lefort's approach: Leninism was a mutation in the praxis of Social Democracy. Equally significant, the nature of Fascist anti-Bolshevism was a new type of revolutionary movement and ideology - a rebellion against the very foundations of modern European civilization. Furthermore, Fascism (in its radicalized, Nazi form) was more than a simple reincarnation of counter-revolutionary thinking and action. Nazism was something brand new, an attempt to renovate the world by getting rid of the bourgeoisie, money, parliaments, parties, and all the other "decadent," "Judeo-plutocratic" elements.

Clarifying these issues is vital for understanding the political, moral, and cultural stakes of the post-Cold War and post-September 11th 2001 world order. This is a world order which political scientist Ken Jowitt rightly assumes to be "without Leninism," but where Leninist legacies continue to haunt political memory and imagination. The war between liberalism and its revolutionary opponents is not over, and new varieties of extreme utopian politics remain as the events leading up to September 11th demonstrated.

Lessons from Communism and Fascism

In the novel La condition humaine, published in the early 1930s, Andre Malraux captured the great dream of 20th century communism. Apprehended by the Kuomintang in China during the failed communist insurrection of 1926, 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.

Many former communists joined the cause because of this dramatic novel and its description of the movement's commitment to "ultimate dignity." The party as the incarnation of historical rationality and defender of human dignity - the revolutionary avant-garde endowed to lead the otherwise lethargic masses into the communist paradise - was the hallmark of the Leninist intervention in the political praxis of the 20th century.

The myth of the Party, more than the myth of the Leader, explains the longevity and endurance of the Leninist project. By contrast, the Fascists, while invoking the commands of historical Providence, invested the ultimate center of power not so much in the institution as in the infallible "genius" of the Leader. For the Fascists, the party mattered, but it never had the kind of charismatic magnet with which it was endowed in Leninist incarnations.

An insistence that there was some form of lingering morality in Bolshevik utopianism, along with the exploitation of anti-Fascist emotions, is primarily responsible for the persistent refusal to acknowledge that the Soviet system was, from its inception, a criminal system. According to this belief, to document and condemn Nazi bestiality was acceptable, but to focus on analogous atrocities perpetrated by the Radical Left was primitive. The revolutions of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed this outlook.

The Black Book of Communism, which documents communist atrocities, was very well received upon publication in France in 1997, selling over 200,000 copies. What The Black Book of Communism succeeds in demonstrating is that communism in its Leninist version was from the outset inimical to the values of individual rights and human freedom. In spite of communism's overblown rhetoric on emancipation from oppression, the leap into freedom turned out to be an experiment in social engineering.

The idea of an independent judiciary was rejected as "rotten liberalism." The party defined what was legal and what was not. Just as in Hitler's Germany where the heinous 1936 Nuremberg Laws were a legal fiction dictated by racial obsessions, from the outset, Bolshevism subordinated justice to party interests. For Lenin, dictatorship of the proletariat was rule by force and unrestricted by any law. The presumption of innocence was replaced by a universalized presumption of guilt. Utopian ideals were used to legitimize abuses against political enemies defined only in connection with the interests of a self-appointed revolutionary vanguard.

Paranoia regarding infiltration, subversion, and treason were enduring features of all communist political cultures, from Russia and China, to Romania and Yugoslavia. Leninist parties in France and Italy, officially playing the democratic parliamentary game after World War II, were no less tolerant of deviation from the orthodox line than similar extreme right institutions, with the sole difference that in keeping with the nature of the game, these quasi- democratic parties could not physically liquidate alleged spies and agents.

Comparing Two Evils: Communism vs. Nazism

There is no spectacular revelation in The Black Book: what has emerged from the secret archives of the former Soviet bloc countries confirms the long-held view that communists engaged in revolutionary civil war to accomplish the total transformation of the economy, society, and culture. What is original, is the comprehensive and systematic analysis and interpretation of the crimes and repression associated with Leninist practices in the 20th century.

When comparing the number of victims of the communist regimes (between 85 and 100 million) with the number of people who perished under or because of Nazism (25 million), however, The Black Book's editor, Stephane Courtois, minimized a few crucial facts. First, as an expansionist global phenomenon, Communism has existed since its inception in 1917 until the present time in some countries (i.e., North Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam). National Socialism lasted between 1933 and 1945. Second, what the price in terms of victims of Nazism would had been, had Hitler won the war, is not known. The logical hypothesis, however, is that in addition to Jews and Gypsies, millions of Slavs and other "racially unfit" individuals would have been killed. Third, in the case of communism, there is a dynamic that could, and did, contrast the original promise to the sordidly criminal practice. In other words, the ideology allowed a space for potential reforms - even for socialism with a human face - within the communist world. 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, Stalinist (or Maoist and Khmer Rouge) experiments was more than an intellectual fantasy. Sovietism and Nazism were equally scornful of traditional morality and legality in their drive to eliminate "enemies," but for Lenin and his followers "re-education," cruel and humiliating as it was, did offer at least some chance for survival to either the "class enemy" or to their offspring. This was not the case with Nazism and its treatment of the Jews.

The problem with Leninism (and later Stalinism), as evinced in 1918 by Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, was the sanctification of the ultimate ends, and thus the creation of an amoral universe in which the most terrible crimes are justified in the name of glowing "tomorrows." This fixation with the future and the readiness to use the most atrocious means to attain it is a feature of all ideological utopias, but in the Stalinist experience it reached grotesquely tragic limits. No less important, the appeals of communism were linked to the extraordinary power of its ideology (and the core myth of the Party as carrier of Reason in History). No other revolutionary movement has been as successful as Leninism in turning the gnostic creed into a self-hypnotizing weapon. Leninist militants worldwide believed in the myth of the party with an ardor comparable only to the illuminates of religious millennial sects.

The most important point is that both regimes (radical Leninism/Stalinism and Nazism) were genocidal. Analytical distinctions between them are certainly important, but the commonality in terms of complete contempt for the bourgeois state of law, human rights, and the universality of humankind regardless of spurious race and class distinction is beyond doubt. Leninism and Nazism contained all the political and ideological ingredients of the totalitarian order - party monopoly on power, ideological uniformity and regimentation, censorship, demonization of the "people's enemy," besieged fortress mentality, secret police terror, concentration camps, and, no less important, the obsession with the shaping of the "New Man."

Often, comparing the two absolute disgraces of the 20th century - the Gulag and the Holocaust - leads to misunderstandings and injured feelings among victims of one or another of these monstrosities. The key point, however, is the legitimacy of the comparison, and here I agree with the Polish-French historian, Krzystof 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 20th 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 "comparative trivialization" or any form of competitive martyrology and to admit that, beyond similarities, the extreme radical systems had unique features, including rationalization of power, definition of the enemy, and designated goals. They represented efforts to establish total control over society through systematic aggressions against any form of autonomous associations and initiatives, as well as the persecution and eventual extermination of ideologically defined adversaries. The ideology behind the tragedy of Communism and Nazism is aptly summarized in this apocalyptic statement as 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 de-humanization of the victims.

At the end of the day, reflecting on the "why" of the whole communist experience recalls that Leninism emerged from the wedding between a direction of European revolutionary socialism - one that could not come to terms with the established liberal order and the rights of the individual - and the Russian tradition of conspiratorial salvationist violence. Similarly, the mixture between revolutionary anti-capitalism and ultra-nationalist German racism led to Hitler's millennial dreams of Aryan supremacy.

The objective therefore, is to retrieve memory, to structure our understanding of these experiments, and to make sense of their methods and goals.

Vladimir Tismaneanu spoke at an EES Discussion on October 31, 2001. The above is a summary of his presentation, edited by Sabina Crisen. Meeting Report #241.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant