Judging Nazism and Communism

Judging Nazism and Communism

Mini Teaser: Judging between the totalitarian evils of the 20th century need not wait for a more balanced historiography; alas, the long farewell is not quite over.

by Author(s): Martin Malia

Accordingly, postwar Soviet historiography overall developed in the reverse direction from that of Nazism: that is, it moved from the primacy of politics and ideology acting "from above" to the primacy of socioeconomic processes, particularly popular radicalism, acting "from below." Or, in the field's shorthand, it moved from the "totalitarian model" to social-history "revisionism." This shift occurred in part for the professional reason that, beginning in the 1960s, social history predominated in all branches of the discipline. And who can deny the necessity of knowing the social facts in any historical configuration? In the Soviet case, though, this trend was pushed to an extreme by politics. For the Soviet Union was then mellowing while the Western cause was turning sour in Vietnam; so the totalitarian model was denounced as mere Cold War ideology and a gross caricature of Soviet complexities. In its place, social process was enthroned as the basic explanatory principle of Communism. To be sure, "cold warriors" such as Robert Conquest continued to write about Communist terror, but such concerns came then to be viewed by the mainstream as archaic and superficial.

So revisionism proceeded to discover a Soviet Union that was at the same time social and sociable. As the new narrative ran, the Leninist record, though flawed by Stalin's excesses, was nonetheless an overall achievement and a durable feature of modernity. The Communist system thus must be understood as an alternative form of "modernization", one promising, moreover, a social-democratic fulfillment internally and enduring détente internationally.

The ideological subtext of this picture should be readily apparent. The new narrative, after all, began with the thesis that October 1917 was not a Bolshevik coup d'état, as the "totalitarians" claimed, but a social revolution of workers and peasants; and in 1917 the masses did indeed revolt against the possessing classes. Yet it is equally obvious that they themselves did not come to power; a party of Marxist ideologues did. After such a beginning, it ought not be surprising that revisionism followed October's heirs in real history by developing in two divergent directions. The movement divided into what might be called "soft" and "hard" versions--the cause of the divorce being those troublesome Stalinist excesses.

To the soft revisionists, true Leninism was the semi-market NEP of the 1920s, an allegedly humane path to socialism defended after the Founder's death by Nikolai Bukharin; and in view of this "Bukharin alternative", Stalin's brutal "revolution from above" became an "aberration."  The hard revisionists, on the other hand, rejected the NEP "retreat" to the market and instead claimed that Stalin's first Five-Year Plan was October's real culmination and Lenin's authentic heritage. This "second October", moreover, allegedly developed from below through a "Cultural Revolution" (1928--31) of workers and party activists. The essence of the Stalin era consequently was the proletariat's massive upward "social mobility"--into the Party nomenklatura, that is. As for the Great Terror of 1936--39, the hard revisionists swept it under the rug with the claim that it was only "a monstrous postscript" to the Revolution, while the number of deaths by execution was modestly placed in the "low hundreds of thousands." Another revisionist classic recognized only that "many thousands of innocent victims were arrested, imprisoned and sent to labor camps. Thousands were executed."

Even granted that until the opening of the Soviet archives after 1991 our knowledge of the system was incomplete, at no time were these figures anything less than prima facie absurd. It is inconceivable that anyone could get away with similarly egregious claims in German history. Yet the hard revisionists at most encountered polite collegial chiding--except from the soft revisionists, who were enraged at their whitewashing of Stalin. The reason for this internecine passion, of course, is that, as the two schools squared off in the 1970s and early 1980s, they were really arguing over what to hope for under the next General Secretary: Bukharinite "socialism with a human face", or a refining of Brezhnev's existing "authoritarian welfare state" with its "institutional pluralism." The underlying reason for these ideological contortions was that Stalin was indeed the culmination of the Soviet story and at the same time, in the eyes of his own heirs, a criminal.

It should be transparent to any neutral observer that we are not dealing here with rival emphases in social history but with a sectarian dispute between two species of ideologues: neo-Bukharinists and para-Stalinists. Indeed, Western revisionism overall developed within what was basically a Soviet, or at least a Marxist, perspective. Putting matters this bluntly, however, was until recently impossible in academic discourse, especially in America. Down through the failure of Gorbachev's perestroika, any allusion to these obvious facts was met with protestation from the revisionists that they were not Marxists but merely positivists whose "social science", unlike that of the Cold War "totalitarians", was a strictly non-political, "value-free" enterprise. Or they might revert to the countercharge of "McCarthyism."

But bluntness is presently a therapeutic necessity; for, though the time is long past when the revisionist master narrative was plausible, the time has not arrived when this is adequately reflected in the historiography. Where now are revisionism's "conquests"? October as a "social revolution" rather than a Party coup d'état? The "Bukharin alternative" of market socialism as true Marxism-Leninism? The "Cultural Revolution" of 1928--32 as the democratic crowning of the Soviet edifice? All are no more than fantasy chapters of an epic culminating in a socialism that turned out to be a mirage. All the same, though revisionism itself ended along with the Soviet regime, the revisionists themselves are still in place, and the debris of their narrative still frames our historical discourse and furnishes the basis for our comparisons with Nazism. Since the parties concerned will not say this, it is necessary to say it in their stead. If they protest their positivist purity, this should carry no more weight than David Irving's protestations that he is not anti-Semitic or partial to Nazism.

Why, however, did David Irving fail so utterly, while the revisionists' perspective was so long triumphant? The first reason, of course, is that they wrote before anyone knew how the Communist adventure would turn Out. As Croce's mentor G.W.F. Hegel famously put it, "the owl of Minerva flies only with the falling of the dusk." So it was only after Communism at last ended up in the disaster column, as Nazism had fifty years earlier, that it became possible to have a "normal", post-mortem Soviet historiography.

The transformation has begun: in the 1990s a new generation was actively rethinking the Soviet experience--though as yet no new paradigm has emerged to orient what one commentator has called "a creative disorder." Indeed, given the thirty-year accumulation of revisionist literature, it will take a full generation to dig out "from under the rubble", to borrow Solzhenitsyn's phrase about the Soviet legacy itself. One thing, however, is already clear: a valid new historiography of the Soviet Union can be built only by reversing revisionism's explanatory priorities; that is, by treating the Soviet system in the first instance not as a society, but as a regime.

The reason why Minerva's owl was so slow to fly in the Russian case (contrary to its performance after the French events that inspired Hegel's maxim) is that October 1917, unlike 1789, never knew a Thermidor. To be sure, ideological zeal abated after Stalin's death in 1953, but the structures of Party, Plan, and Police that he and Lenin had between them built remained in place until 1991. The heritage of 1917 therefore ossified into the historically unprecedented phenomenon of an "institutional revolution" (to borrow a label from later Mexican history); and its only Thermidor was its demise. Not until the historiographical consequences have been drawn from such a paradoxical outcome can we hope to have symmetrical "databases" for comparing Nazism and Communism.

The Role of Socialist Ideology

YET EVEN IF this empirical goal is achieved, the comparison between Communism and Nazism will always be clouded by their contrasting ideological auras, and these derive from their relationship to that greatest of modern utopias: socialism. Both movements after all claimed that name, and both pretended to speak with a single voice for all the "people." Hence both strove to transcend liberal democracy by submerging the individual in the "collective" or the "communal", whether a fraternal internationalism or a particularistic Volksgemeinscbaft. And this aspiration--presciently diagnosed by Elie Halévy--is surely the lowest common denominator of generic totalitarianism. This concept, therefore, is best considered both as a historical benchmark and as an ideal type, not a literal description of either dictatorship's "monolithic" control of society.

Over and above this bond, however, socialism is relevant to the Nazi-Communist comparison for a still more basic reason: the pervasiveness of its mystique in the moral economy of modern politics. Generic socialism, after all, was the preeminent theoretical project of the 19th century, and its maximal version was the Marxist program of leaping to an egalitarian society through the suppression of private property and the market. This ambition then became the great practical endeavor of the 20th century, whether its adherents settled for the diluted democratic variant of a welfare state or sought complete triumph through a Leninist party-state.

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