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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For those who considered themselves men of the left, it was a staple of belief that the very concept of totalitarianism was deeply flawed. Marxism, it was argued, came from the age of the Enlightenment and sought man’s perfection in a classless society that would end in something close to heaven on earth. Fascism, on the other hand, was predicated on barbarism, loyalty to the leader, a commitment to total war, and a virulent racism that declared Jews to be the scourge of advanced civilization and demanded their total elimination.

Hitler/Stalin

On the eve of World War II, liberal opinion in the United States and Western Europe saw the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin as the advance guard of a worldwide anti-fascist coalition. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, anti-fascists throughout the West saw it as a noble effort led by the Communist International to break the back of fascism before Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy would go to war—and they despised the noninterventionist policy of the United States and other Western powers. They saw the Soviet Union as the one nation whose leaders believed that military and economic aid to the Spanish republic could allow it to survive and repel the Falangist generals, led by Francisco Franco. 

In the context of these events, the myth of the Soviet Union as a brave anti-fascist power emerged, and the parallel purges going on within the Soviet Union were ignored—or justified as a necessary tool for Stalin to defeat fascist opponents who threatened Soviet power and, ostensibly, had attained top positions within the government in Moscow.

Many books have been written about the similarities and differences between communism and fascism, both in theory and practice. None, however, matches the insight, analysis, and deep thought found in The Devil in History. Vladimir Tismaneanu has produced, in his words, “a political-philosophical interpretation of how maximalist utopian aspirations can lead to the nightmares of Soviet and Nazi camps.” 

Tismaneanu is especially qualified to tackle the subject. He grew up in Communist Romania, raised by parents who both believed in the Communist myth. His father fought, and was severely injured, in the Spanish Civil War. A good education and a negative reaction to the reality of “really existing socialism” made him skeptical of the ideology he was taught, however. He educated himself by studying the forbidden writings of major anti-Communist thinkers, finally finding people who understood that the system in which he lived was not only flawed but based on a philosophical lie. 

Tismaneanu’s own experience, combined with study of the works of scholars like Leszek Kolakowski and others, gave him the knowledge to learn the truth—and the courage to leave his own country to take up residence in the West (eventually, in the United States, where he now teaches at the University of Maryland). 

Tismaneanu has read and considered the thoughts and arguments of all the major anti-Communist thinkers; he has digested their contributions and integrated their analyses into an all-encompassing portrait of his own. He is clear that, in all of their essentials, no basic difference exists between communism and fascism. Both projected what he calls “a fantasy of salvation. .  .  . [B]oth promised to rescue humanity from the bondage of capitalist mercantilism and to ensure the advent of the total community.” 

In many respects, Bolshevism as developed from Marx—first by Lenin and then by Stalin—required an even more severe obedience. Both communism and fascism demanded a revolutionary break from the past and the creation of a “New Man” whose life would be led to guarantee the creation of a new social order. But Bolshevism alone asserted that all wisdom and truth lay in the party. From its very beginnings, in 1917, it was founded (Tismaneanu writes) “upon fanaticism, elitism, unflinching commitment to a sacred cause, and total submission of critical reason by means of faith to a self-appointed ‘vanguard’ of militant illuminati.” Its adherents believed that “you can’t be right against the Party” and had to be ready, overnight, to say that black is white, if that was demanded.

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.” 

How else to explain the enduring admiration for tyrants like Fidel Castro and the late Hugo Chávez in many sectors of today’s leftist intelligentsia? Indeed, while Eastern European dissidents came to give up their hope for a humane socialism, the Western left persists in standing behind their dream of a socialist future. But Tismaneanu warns that there is no easy road to any kind of utopia in which a “delusional vision of mandatory happiness” exists. All we can do is remain steady amidst the threats to a liberal social order based on private property, the market, and individual freedom—from whatever source those threats emanate. The “devil in history” has changed since the era of communism and fascism; its forms and adherents are still with us. 

Ronald Radosh is coauthor, with Allis Radosh, of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel