Left totalitarian, right totalitarian

In my post on Richard Overy’s excellent book, The Dictators, I touch on the question of the relative evil of Hitler and Stalin, Nazism and Marxism-Leninism.  In a sense this is a fool’s game.  Millions died either way – why bother with a competition?  From another perspective, precisely because of the monstrousness of the crimes, judgment is required.  Were the leaders responsible?  Or does blame fall on the systems they erected – or, again, on the people they led?

For what it’s worth, my take, after reading Overy, is that Hitlerism stood further from our own ideals, and committed more and greater evils, than Stalinism; but the latter was more seductive, easier to export and to defend, and therefore in the long run a more destructive force.  Nazism is gone forever.  North Korea is a living and dying example of Stalinism today, while Fidel Castro’s Cuba can still find liberal defenders and excusers for totalitarian destruction.

Slavoj Zizej takes up the subject for the London Review of Books.  In an overly intellectualized assesment, he comes down (I think) on the side that views Stalinism as less noxious than Hitlerism.  He worries because conservative EU parlamentarians, mostly from ex-Communist countries, have asked that Communist symbols, such as the red star, be banned, as Nazi symbols have been.  Here is the gist of his argument:

It is here that one has to make a choice. The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat. When, in September 2003, Silvio Berlusconi provoked a violent outcry with his observation that Mussolini, unlike Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, never killed anyone, the true scandal was that, far from being an expression of Berlusconi’s idiosyncrasy, his statement was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper context in which to understand the European conservatives’ call for the prohibition of Communist symbols.

Put me down as a believer in the “pure” liberal reaction that, for reasons unexplained, is a priori false.  Zizej maintains that Stalinism was based on an ideology that truly meant to improve the human race, whereas Hitlerism aimed at the destruction of inferior races.  True enough, and Berlusconi was foolish to imply otherwise.  But the method of Stalinism – the morality of destruction so well described in Overy’s book – makes the comparison of ideas seem, in a literal sense, quite bloodless.

In the end, what matters is whether humanity was improved or slaughtered, and in which places, and for how long.  Ideals only matter when they affect behavior, for good or evil.  And the “identity” of Europe, one hopes, is not based on “anti-Fascist” unity, given the 40 years when the entire continent could have yielded to Marxism and retained full anti-Fascist credentials.  The Cold War lasted much longer than the struggle against Hitlerism.  The relative evil of the two systems is important but not determinative.  The identity of Europe – what I would rather call its ideals, its aspirations – should rest on positive liberal values, or it will not last.



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