Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Relative Evils of Fascism and Communism

Slavoj Zizek begins an essay titled "The Two Totalitarianisms" with this observation:
A small note – not the stuff of headlines, obviously – appeared in the newspapers on 3 February. In response to a call for the prohibition of the public display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, a group of conservative members of the European Parliament, mostly from ex-Communist countries, demanded that the same apply to Communist symbols: not only the hammer and sickle, but even the red star. This proposal should not be dismissed lightly: it suggests a deep change in Europe’s ideological identity.

Till now, to put it straightforwardly, Stalinism hasn’t been rejected in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable. Why?
Zizek explains what he believes are both the valid and flawed points of the argument and some of the comparisons he makes are worth pointing out.
Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes. But for the Nazis the guilt of the Jews was a fact of their biological constitution: there was no need to prove they were guilty, since they were guilty by virtue of being Jews.

In the Stalinist ideological imaginary, universal reason is objectivised in the guise of the inexorable laws of historical progress, and we are all its servants, the leader included. . . . Consider the fact that, on Stalin’s birthday, prisoners would send him congratulatory telegrams from the darkest gulags: it isn’t possible to imagine a Jew in Auschwitz sending Hitler such a telegram. It is a tasteless distinction, but it supports the contention that under Stalin, the ruling ideology presupposed a space in which the leader and his subjects could meet as servants of Historical Reason. Under Stalin, all people were, theoretically, equal. . .

Nazism displaces class struggle onto racial struggle and in doing so obfuscates its true nature. What changes in the passage from Communism to Nazism is a matter of form, and it is in this that the Nazi ideological mystification resides: the political struggle is naturalised as racial conflict, the class antagonism inherent in the social structure reduced to the invasion of a foreign (Jewish) body which disturbs the harmony of the Aryan community. It is not, as Nolte claims, that there is in both cases the same formal antagonistic structure, but that the place of the enemy is filled by a different element (class, race). Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism. . .

[t]he irrationality of Nazism was ‘condensed’ in anti-semitism – in its belief in the Jewish plot – while the irrationality of Stalinism pervaded the entire social body. For that reason, Nazi police investigators looked for proofs and traces of active opposition to the regime, whereas Stalin’s investigators were happy to fabricate evidence, invent plots etc.
He also calls to task Communist thinkers who saw the flaw in Stalinism but did little to bring it in line with the "true" Communist ideals.
We should also admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism. It is, in this respect, a scandal that the Frankfurt School failed to produce a systematic and thorough analysis of the phenomenon. The exceptions are telling: Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), which suggested that the three great world-systems – New Deal capitalism, Fascism and Stalinism – tended towards the same bureaucratic, globally organised, ‘administered’ society; Herbert Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism (1958), his least passionate book, a strangely neutral analysis of Soviet ideology with no clear commitments; and, finally, in the 1980s, the attempts by some Habermasians who, reflecting on the emerging dissident phenomena, endeavoured to elaborate the notion of civil society as a site of resistance to the Communist regime – interesting, but not a global theory of the specificity of Stalinist totalitarianism. How could a school of Marxist thought that claimed to focus on the conditions of the failure of the emancipatory project abstain from analysing the nightmare of ‘actually existing socialism’? And was its focus on Fascism not a silent admission of the failure to confront the real trauma?

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.
Zizek clearly believes Fascism, particularly Nazism, worse than Communism. To me, the whole debate is premised upon the kind of false either/or choice that only an academic would engage in. While his points of contrast are interesting, the very real result of life under both systems was tragic. While we can debate which was more evil, the bottom line is that both political systems resulted in evil acts done in their "name," regardless of the ideals that purportedly formed their foundation.

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