The generally accepted verdict on 20th-century ideology—that its “totalitarian” character eclipses any of the ostensible differences between its “left” and “right” versions—is one that few wish to dispute. Indeed, the very term totalitarian was most probably coined by the dissident Marxist Victor Serge, to denote a uniquely modern form of absolutism that essentially sought to abolish the private life and the individual conscience. As with concepts, so with consequences: David Rousset’s early classic, L’Univers Concentrationnaire, foreshadowed the image of “the camp” as the place where the human surplus of brute Utopianism was disposed of, no matter what the claimed character of the regime.
This convergence or symmetry does not automatically translate into a strict moral equivalence. More people may have been consumed by the Gulag than by the Nazi lager system. Yet Robert Conquest, the preeminent historian of Stalinism, when invited to pass a judgment, found the Hitlerite crimes to be more damnable. Pressed to enlarge on this, he replied: “I simply feel it to be so.” I think the intuition of many morally intelligent people would be the same.
Another way in which a distinction might be drawn is this: we have no real record of any “dissident” writing by the minority of intellectuals who were drawn to Fascism and National Socialism. Indeed, were it not for a certain sick fascination with the pornography of violence and racism, there would be scant point in studying the political writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, let alone of Alfred Rosenberg, at all. Martin Heidegger and Giovanni Gentile may have laid down an obfuscatory barrage of pseudo-historical justification for the cult of supreme national leadership, but it survives mainly as a curiosity. Most important: it is quite impossible to imagine any terms in which they could ever have formulated a critique of Hitler or Mussolini as having betrayed the original ideals of their respective movements. The ideologies blankly forbade and foreclosed any such contingency.