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Books The Future Did Not Work

by J. Arch Getty


THE PASSING OF AN ILLUSION: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century

by François Furet.
Univ of Chigaco,
596 pages,
35.00.

THE BLACK BOOK OF COMMUNISM: Crimes, Terror, Repression

by Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin.
Harvard,
858 pages,
$37.50.


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.

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From the archives:

"Dead Souls," by Murray Feshbach (January, 1999)
A prominent demographer warns that the spread of tuberculosis and AIDS in Russia will soon make Western hand-wringing over the pace of Russian "economic reform" seem quaint.

"Was Democracy Just a Moment?", by Robert D. Kaplan (December, 1997)
The global triumph of democracy was to be the glorious climax of the American Century. But democracy may not be the system that will best serve the world -- or even the one that will prevail in places that now consider themselves bastions of freedom.

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."

From the archives:

"The Holocaust on Trial," by D. D. Guttenplan (February, 2000)
A controversial British writer, David Irving, has instigated a libel suit against an American historian for calling him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." The trial, just beginning in Britain, will almost inevitably be used by some to claim legitimacy for Holocaust "revisionism" -- as if the Holocaust as a historical fact were open to debate.

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.

Courtois writes that he is not trying to present a "macabre comparative system for crunching numbers, some kind of grand total that doubles the horror." Yet there is a lot of arithmetic in his presentation, and one gets the impression that he is including every possible death just to run up the score. That impression troubled his distinguished co-authors; Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin sparked a scandal in Paris when they publicly disassociated themselves from Courtois's opinions about the scale of Communist terror, asserting that his introduction was more a diatribe than a balanced scholarly treatment. They felt that he was obsessed with attributing a body count of 100 million to communism, and like several other scholars, they rejected his equation of Soviet repression with Nazi genocide. Werth, a well-regarded French specialist on the Soviet Union whose sections in the Black Book on the Soviet Communists are sober and damning, told Le Monde, "Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union."

Stalin's camps were different from Hitler's. Tens of thousands of prisoners were released every year upon completion of their sentences. We now know that before World War II more inmates escaped annually from the Soviet camps than died there. Research shows that Stalin's camps and deportations, unlike their Nazi extermination counterparts, were planned components of the Soviet economy, designed to provide a stable slave-labor supply and to populate forbidding territories forcibly with involuntary settlers. Rations and medical care were substandard, but were often not dramatically better elsewhere in Stalin's Soviet Union and were not designed to hasten the inmates' deaths, although they certainly did so. Similarly, the overwhelming weight of opinion among scholars working in the new archives (including Courtois's co-editor Werth) is that the terrible famine of the 1930s was the result of Stalinist bungling and rigidity rather than some genocidal plan.

Are deaths from a famine caused by the stupidity and incompetence of the regime (such deaths account for more than half of Courtois's 100 million) to be equated with the deliberate gassing of Jews? Courtois's arithmetic is too simple. A huge number of the fatalities attributed here to Communist regimes fall into a kind of catchall category called "excess deaths": premature demises, over and above the expected mortality rate of the population, that resulted directly or indirectly from government policy. Those executed, exiled to Siberia, or forced into gulag camps where nutrition and living conditions were poor could fall into this category. But so could many others, and "excess deaths" are not the same as intentional deaths.

Such arithmetical history sacrifices historical accuracy by lumping different events into the same category. Jerry Hough, of Duke University, has suggested just how ambiguous such calculations can be. Using the dramatically rising death rates in Russia in the 1990s, and with perhaps a bit of tongue in cheek, Hough calculated that 1.5 million "extra deaths" occurred in Russia in just the first four years of Yeltsin's tenure -- a total that, Hough points out, is "considerably larger than the number Stalin killed in the Great Purge" of the 1930s. The real problem with the books under review is a facile categorization in order to fix blame or make political points. It would be more polemical than accurate to equate famine deaths, victims of police terror, and deaths in Nazi gas chambers with the plight of Russians unable to buy food and health care today. One could place many of the century's deaths in any of several categories, according to the political point one wanted to make. Should we blame premature deaths in Russia today on the legacy of communism or on the failed policies of reformers? For how many deaths under Stalin should we blame communism? Stalin's personal paranoia? Backwardness or ignorance? We might do better to try to understand these grisly statistics in their contexts, rather than positing large polemical categories and then filling them up with bodies. Good history is about balanced interpretation and is usually more complicated than categorization or blame.

The Black Book attributes all these deaths to an ideology: Marxist-Leninist communism. Courtois's introduction and Martin Malia's foreword posit a single world Communist movement in the twentieth century within a "Leninist matrix" with a single "genetic code." Thus ideologies can be blamed for deaths, and all the terror in this case belongs to just one.

WAS there a single "communism" in this century? After Marx's First International association of Communists came three more Internationals. Each of them bitterly denounced its predecessors as the bearers of a false ideology. Regimes calling themselves Communist installed a bewildering variety of economic and social systems and constantly attacked one another for all kinds of ideological deviations; one party's Marxist-Leninist faith was another's vile heresy. They rarely acted as allies and frequently fought one another on the battlefield. The USSR and China fought steadily along the Amur River. Communist Vietnam invaded Communist Kampuchea, and then Communist China attacked Communist Vietnam.

Historically speaking, what did Stalin's disciplined, urban-based industrializing system have in common with Mao Zedong's reliance on the rural peasantry and the wild Cultural Revolution? Did the fanatical Mao and the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping share a genetic code? Pol Pot, who massacred his countrymen in Cambodia, had more in common with the anti-Communist Idi Amin than with the Communist Fidel Castro. The impulses and historical conditions giving rise to these regimes in various countries were vastly different. Even their terrors were dissimilar: Chinese and Vietnamese repression stressed re-education; the Khmer Rouge massacred categories of people; Stalin permanently transplanted real and imagined enemies. The only thing linking the Communist regimes was that each constantly attested that it was Marxist-Leninist -- and that other Communist regimes were not. After all, Ethiopian colonels and Yemeni bandits used to claim that they were Leninists too, and nothing was easier than calling one's country a "people's republic."

IF we want to categorize the unprecedented violence and terror of the past century, we could just as well use templates that have less to do with left-wing or right-wing isms. Backward countries driven to modernize quickly were (and are) often scenes of repression and sickening mass killing, whether they were self-proclaimed Communists or not. In addition to modernization, one could use religion, nationalism, economic competition, or the technology of war to group the century's deaths. If we want to play this scorecard game with isms, we could post a huge number of deaths to the account of capitalist and nationalist competition, starting with imperialism and two world wars and ending with excess deaths in Yeltsin's democratic Russia.

The Passing of an Illusion can be seen as a testament to the Western intellectual view of communism, and it might seem unfair to criticize Furet for the weakness of his coverage of Russian history. But in presenting the Western view Furet feels obliged to provide a good bit of that history. In the process he rejects several decades of historical research on the Soviet Union -- as does Courtois -- and insists on views that were current decades ago. These days the weight of historical and archival evidence is against both authors: they depict the 1917 October Revolution as a mere coup rather than the social upheaval that historians study today. To them the famine of 1932-1933 was simply a planned Ukrainian genocide, although today most see it as a policy blunder that affected millions belonging to other nationalities. Yes, at the end of World War II, Stalin incarcerated returning Soviet prisoners of war, but now we know that most of them were released quickly after routine processing in temporary camps.

Furet writes that the "beginning of the end" for the Soviet regime was Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalin secret speech of 1956, which "overturned the universal status of the Communist idea." For Furet and other intellectuals, this was truly a crack in the ideological façade of the Soviet Union (Furet himself broke with communism that year), and the rest of Soviet history resolves itself into steady decomposition. Ideas matter intensely for Furet, and from the limited point of view of ideology he is right. The break with Stalinism did in fact disorient and begin to disillusion Western Communist intellectuals. French former Communists often date their own defection and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union together, and argue about who left the Party at the most correct time, thus confounding Soviet history with their own. Furet's view ignores the fact that the USSR existed for another thirty-five years after 1956 -- more years than Stalin ruled. Economically and technologically these were actually among the best years for the long-suffering Soviet people.

Similarly, Furet's book in particular proposes an old-fashioned kind of personalized history that encompasses not only the play of ideas but also the deeds of famous people. Absent here is any real consideration of society or economics or the roles of masses of people, except as categories manipulated by leading personalities. Perhaps because of his lack of expertise in modern history, Furet has written a kind of nineteenth-century version of great men making history. I doubt that many modern historians would agree that Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini "took power by breaking weak regimes with the superior force of their wills." Surely more than that was involved.

Yes, French intellectuals were disappointed by the Soviet Union. But many others were not, and not everyone is concerned solely with ideas, ideologies, and great men. It is instructive to remember that only nine months before Yeltsin dissolved the USSR, an overwhelming majority of Soviet voters, in a referendum, were in favor of maintaining the union. For a surprising number of people today in the former Soviet Union, the terror does not wholly negate achievements such as universal literacy, one of the best technological-education systems in the world, the first man in space, free education and health care, and security in old age. Maybe these social gains, too, were an illusion, but we risk another kind of illusion by not including the few but important pluses with the mountains of minuses. The West need not be generous in its victory over communism, but we might be more balanced in our obituaries.

FURET sees communism as a kind of flash in the pan of modern history. When the illusion passed, he writes, it left virtually no traces and no enduring legacy. This is preposterous. Admittedly, besides its moral failure, communism failed in its crusade to convert the whole world and in the end succeeded in lastingly converting no significant part of it. But communism's impact was and still is enormous. In addition to provoking significant changes in capitalist economies, such as vastly increased military spending and the growth of a military-industrial complex, the USSR's existence changed Western social development in fundamental ways.

Labor reform in the West in the past century came about under the threat of a radicalized international labor movement protected and supported by the USSR. President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was in part meant to steal the thunder of radicals who looked to Moscow and therefore could not be ignored. Social goals that are commonplace today, including women's rights and racial integration, were planks of the Communist Party platform long before mainstream American parties took them seriously. It was Communists who first went to the American South and began organizing African-Americans and poor whites around issues of social justice. The more politically acceptable young people who followed them in the sixties are heroes today. On the international scene the Soviet Union provided support for Nelson Mandela and other reformers. Communism made life difficult for Western establishments, and it is doubtful that reforms would have come when they did if the USSR had not existed. Communists always rejected reform in favor of revolution. Ironically, however, the existence of the Soviet Union helped the capitalist West reform itself and avoid the bloody revolutions of the East. Twentieth-century communism was no passing illusion; its legacies are everywhere.

Why are we seeing books like these now, when communism is gone and there are no more dragons to slay? Their authors tell us that there have been no "probing examinations" of Communist horrors, and that communism has to date received no "fair and just" assessment. This comes as a surprise, given that the field of Soviet studies in the West before the late 1970s did little more than detail Soviet crimes. Most writing about the Soviet Union then was about totalitarian terror, and Soviet specialists provided us with a full menu of Communist atrocities. One could read about these horrors in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's masterly Gulag Archipelago decades ago. And it has been seven years since I and others published the actual figures on Soviet gulag inmates and executions from the KGB archives of the notorious gulag system. From 1921 to Stalin's death, in 1953, around 800,000 people were sentenced to death and shot, 85 percent of them in the years of the Great Terror of 1937-1938. From 1934 to Stalin's death, more than a million perished in the gulag camps. A few years ago these figures were confirmed by KGB archivists and published in the Yeltsin Administration's official gazetteer. No, the books under review are not responses to any failure to study these questions. A more cogent justification for these works lies in their presentation of factual material from newly available archives. In particular, Werth's chapters on the Soviet Union provide a wealth of historical details. It is unfortunate that they are presented more as polemic than as balanced, carefully analyzed history.

Such books, which use obsolete concepts to tell part of a story, are less about history than about politics. French tradition does not favor objective history for history's sake. Every history book in France is immediately understood as its author's political declaration. Because the French Communist Party is still a force in politics, historical books about communism inevitably become today's polemics. Courtois himself has said, "In France, history is politics." But Furet's erudition and the Courtois team's 800 pages of single-minded fine print are unlikely to produce a similar impact in the United States, where much more has been known of Soviet crimes and where the Communist Party has never been part of the respectable intellectual establishment.


J. Arch Getty is a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles. His most recent book is The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (2000).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; The Future Did Not Work - 00.03; Volume 285, No. 3; page 113-116.