The Future Did Not Work

ALONG with self-congratulation and relief, the fall of the Soviet Union has stimulated an abundance of postmortems on communism and its place in the twentieth century. Though communism in its classic form may be extinct, we sometimes seem to be fighting it almost as fiercely today as we did when it threatened us.

Near the end of his life François Furet (1927-1997), one of the best historians of the French Revolution, turned his formidable intellect to the study of communism. In The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, his last book, Furet presents the Soviet experience as an illusion -- one that retained a fascination and an allegiance in the West far beyond the time when its essence should have been clear. Furet, like many other French intellectuals embued with a leftist activism and an ideological passion dating from the French revolutions of 1789, 1848, and 1871, turned for a time to communism. He was a member of the French Communist Party from 1949 to 1956. Although his text is not in the first person, it provides an implicit chronicle of his own illusion, and disillusion.


It was an illusion on several counts. First, for Furet, communism was based on an ultimately false linear philosophical view of history as Reason, in which a superior phase of historical development -- socialism -- was scientifically bound to follow "bourgeois" (Furet's term) liberal capitalism. The Passing of an Illusion is brilliant, and one would be hard pressed to find better writing of history than the first chapter, which traces the roots of modern political thinking back to the nineteenth century. The liberal bourgeois quest for competitive individualism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not appeal to those who valued social and economic equality, or to those seeking a sense of community that transcended the isolation of the individual. The conflict between individual and collective rights still motivates politics today, and Furet believed that these limits to the bourgeois ideal would provide breeding grounds for fascism and communism, both of which had egalitarian and collectivist appeal.

Second, the geopolitical accident of its alliance with the Western democracies against Hitler created a wartime illusion of the Soviet Union as a democracy. The universal revulsion for the Nazis enabled the Communists for many years to enjoy a reputation for anti-fascism and thereby evade close scrutiny or objective evaluation by Western intellectuals, who yearned for social justice, were made uncomfortable by capitalist materialism, and felt moral outrage against fascism.

Furet is particularly eloquent about what he considers to be communism's ill-deserved image as fascism's opposite; he believes that the two were identical in every significant way. Both were born of the violence of the First World War, when millions of men, betrayed by their leaders, were embittered by the sacrifice forced upon them and angry at the war's pointlessness. Trench warfare brought the masses to the fore of European history, in a setting of violence, extremist passion, and anger. It was soldiers, Furet believed, who overthrew the Russian czar, eased Lenin's takeover, and made up the angry membership of fascist parties elsewhere. Fascism and communism were both mass movements (which Furet tends to dislike) that became one-man dictatorships.

Yet Furet may draw some criticism when he closely links Communist and fascist regimes. There is sharp debate about this today among historians, and many of them are uncomfortable putting communism and fascism into the same category. Clearly, both Hitler's and Stalin's regimes sought to exercise total control over their populations and deprive people of the possibility to organize or even exist outside the officially prescribed forms and institutions. Recent research shows, however, that much as they may have wanted to, the Stalinists were never able to build the coldly efficient machine of Orwell's 1984; much of the Stalinist system worked as the Russian government had worked in 1884. Clumsy implementation of vague plans wreaked havoc with attempts to pursue policies. Moscow had little information about what was really happening in the far-flung provinces, where regional satraps used distance and poor communications to insulate themselves from Moscow's control and build their own power. There was not even a telephone line to the Soviet Far East until the eve of World War II. Research in newly available Soviet archives has also documented widespread Stalin-era dissent, passive and active resistance, strikes, and even full-scale peasant revolts of a kind and scale that Hitler never faced.

What's more, Nazi Germany and the USSR had radically different social and economic systems. Hitler, despite his populist rhetoric, largely preserved and defended private property, the market economy, and existing elites. Stalin utterly destroyed capitalism and physically annihilated the social and economic elites. Although both regimes used terror, they used it differently, against different targets. Hitler's terror was designed to be finite and to exterminate particular ethnic groups (Jews and Gypsies, for example). Stalin's terror mainly sought to turn social groups such as peasants and businessmen into a slave labor force that would be a permanent part of the Soviet economy. During the Cold War, when the USSR supplanted Nazi Germany as the enemy of the West, journalists and political scientists began to associate the two regimes. Furet could dig up only a few observers who tried to make an analogy between the two dictatorships before 1945.

LESS concerned with the subtleties of illusion, Stéphane Courtois and some of his co-authors are eager to associate Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in a different way. The Black Book of Communism, an 800-page collection of essays about the human toll exacted by Communist regimes in the twentieth century, reaches a much simpler conclusion: the Germans and the Russians were merely terrible criminals who were members of a huge Communist gang. Examining the records of repression in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Latin America, Africa, and Afghanistan, Courtois et al. arrive at a figure of 100 million deaths attributable to Communist regimes, as compared with 25 million attributable to the Nazis. In his essay Courtois makes the point that the Soviet terror was greater than the Nazis' and also, because it was systematic and genocidal, violated the Nuremberg Laws and the "unwritten code of the natural laws of humanity." The actions of Communist Parties thus qualify communism, like the Nazi Party, as a "criminal organization."


No sane person can rise to the defense of mass terror. The moral point has been clear for decades, although some may be troubled that Courtois relates the problem to ignoring the ideals of "Judeo-Christian civilization," which has no monopoly on morality. To frame our understanding of these events as numerical counts attributable to particular ideologies is even more problematic.

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