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.