The Magazine

Two Roads Converged

How fascism and communism led to totalitarianism.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Both ideologies were nihilistic, contemptuous of any idea that universal rights exist. Both sanctified violence as a method necessary for reaching the utopian goal, and both had total contempt for the old bourgeois order and complete faith in a utopian future in which all human conflict would finally come to an end. To reach that goal, party militants had to be ready at any moment to suspend reason and honesty, to carry out the orders of the party without hesitation and bear whatever sacrifices that entailed. To Communists, the party was a mystical repository of truth, “a ‘community of saints’ dedicated to bringing about the cataclysmic millennium; it was the historical agent, for it encompassed the professional revolutionaries, those who, by reuniting their acting and thinking faculties, regained ‘the grace of the harmonious original being.’ ” 

That paradigm, Tismaneanu argues, stemmed from a very correct reading of Marx by Lenin. And it was Lenin, and not any of his successors, who created the model of the totalitarian social structure, beginning with the very concept of the party as the all-knowing foundation of a new order. The strange development that differentiates communism from fascism, however, is the reality that so many early followers of Lenin’s system would break and become disillusioned: first, by seeking the development of an alternate Marxism that they hoped would prove to be humanistic and different; and eventually, by concluding that such a task was impossible. These dissident Marxists, who began by differentiating an early Marx from a later Marx, and argued on behalf of a socialist humanism, or “critical Marxism” (such as those involved in the Prague Spring of 1968), would later devote themselves to explicating the intrinsic failure of all Marxism as a worldview.

Nothing like that ever happened to any of the intellectual adopters of fascism, either Mussolini’s version or the volkisch ideology developed by Nazi theorists in Hitler’s Germany. There were self-proclaimed Marxist humanists, who sought to rescue Marxism from Leninism and totalitarianism; there were no fascist humanists who sought to rescue fascism from Hitler or Mussolini. But while fascism as an ideology is all but dead in today’s world, Tismaneanu cautions us that Leninism still has its appeals. It arose out of the Enlightenment belief in reason and progress, Marx’s social theory, and Russian revolutionary tradition. Tismaneanu argues that, in post-Soviet Russia, the antidemocratic collectivist ethos lives on, and that its leading political figures, such as Vladimir Putin, “define themselves .  .  . in relationship to Lenin’s legacies.” Leninism survives as a principle of organization, if not as a Marxist ideology. One sees evidence of this in Putin’s praise of Stalin, in his refusal to close Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, in his recent renaming of Volgograd to Stalingrad for a few celebratory days each year. 

When Hitler came to power in Germany, Tismaneanu notes, he inaugurated a state based on Lenin’s construct of a “permanent emergency,” which abolished the “bourgeois freedoms” of the short-lived Russian republic and Germany’s Weimar government. In both nations, the destruction of legality took place, followed by the arrest and elimination of those who were considered “objective” enemies of the people, whether Social Democrats in Germany or Mensheviks and anarchists in Russia, all of whom stood against the creation of the “perfect, organic community.” As the Soviet Union came near its end, even Mikhail Gorbachev could not break with the principles of communism to allow for real political pluralism—which explains his vacillations and backsliding as everything was collapsing. Unlike those who see Gorbachev as a hero who brought tyranny to an end, Tismaneanu paints him as a flawed leader who began a revolution from above but was unable to break with the system’s major principles to follow through with what he had begun.

The great importance of The Devil in History is that Tismaneanu challenges the continuing belief system of so many Western intellectuals who, despite their acknowledgement of the crimes of Stalinism, still see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a sad end to a well-meaning experiment. One still hears the refrain that “real socialism as it would exist here has never been tried,” or that “socialism in the West would be democratic and would work,” or that Communist leaders were “progressive, anti-imperialist, and, more important still, anti-fascist.”