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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Shrinking Back From The Abyss

Robert has written a lengthy response to my brief comment on Terry Eagleton using Polish Catholic traditionalist anti-communism as a strike against Pope John Paul II. He takes my point (brief as it was) and then spins it off into a lengthy and interesting post that discusses the nature of a particular type of reactionary anti-Communism as well as a look at an article from the London Review of Books by Slavoj Zizek that dealt with the differences between Fascism and Communism.

The Zizek article is fairly interesting. Essentially, he draws the line between the two totalitarianisms as being between one that was a 'failed emancipatory project' that was 'part of the Enlightenment tradition' (Communism) and one that wasn't (Fascism). Thus, the Utopian goals of Communism as it was originally conceived mark it out from the parochial obsessions of Fascism. He sort of loses it at the end, saying, somewhat strangely, that a 'liberal' attempt to rationally compare the two will lead to Fascism being seen as a lesser evil, "an understandable reaction to the Communist threat". This is something of an odd statement, considering that at the beginning of his essay he was talking about the fact that Communist nostalgia (Ostalgie, Che posters, Maoist detritus, etc.) is seen, in the Capitalist world that virtually all of us now inhabit, as more acceptable and less menacing than Fascist nostalgia. Indeed, almost anyone in the Capitalist world will have heard (and even quite possibly uttered) the lament that "Communism was a beautiful idea, but...".

In this context, Zizek's contention that any attempt to rationally compare the two will lead inevitably to Fascism being seen as a lesser evil is somewhat perverse. Certainly, some will, and have, come to just such a conclusion, yet it is clearly not the standard. In Western society, Fascism (especially Nazism) is usually presented as a greater force of evil than Communism. This is especially true in the post Cold War period, where the Nazis seem to loom as large as ever in the imagination (witness the recent American election, where partisans of both sides seemed to trip over each other in order to call their opponents 'Fascists'), while Communism, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's rebirth as a Capitalist dynamo, has sidled off the stage of the popular imagination. I can go into any bookstore here in New York City and find a great number of books on Germany, but virtually all of them will be about the Nazi period, whereas the available (and popular) literature on the Soviet Union is much sparser. Partly this is due to an information deficit, in that the sort of comprehensive info on the horrors of Hitler's regime that was available after the end of WWII was not, in the case of Stalinism, available until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet even the greater availability of information on the horrors of Communism seems not to have made that much of an impact on the tastes of the public either here or in Europe, whereas the demand for documentaries, books, films, and all other manner of parsings of Nazi Germany shows no sign of slacking.

Why is this? Well, here I think Zizek is correct in that the original ideals of Communism somewhat immunize it when people compare it to its totalitarian cousin. I also think that there is something else at work that explains the relative lack of interest in Communism's crimes when compared to those of Fascism. Essentially, when I look at the original ideals of the two movements, I whole-heartedly prefer the goals and ideals of Communism. Yet, when I compare the realities of what the two became, I find Communism (in it's actual, real world, non-theoretical form) infinitely more depressing. This is because, as Zizek says, Communism was a failed project of emancipation. Fascism was, in the real world, exactly what it said on the tin: hysterically emotional, insanely paranoid, obsessed with murder and martyrdom. Sifting through the remnants of Fascism isn't particularly difficult; considering Fascism lends itself to easy platitudes about the need for greater brotherhood and tolerance, and so on. Fascism was a mechanized version of the tribal manias that have periodically afflicted mankind since the earliest moments of civilization. Antecedents of Fascism's tastes for ethnic butchery and mass mobilization can be seen in the sack of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, in the horrendous massacres that the Mongols inflicted on Central Asia, and in a thousand other instances.

Yet turning your attention to the horrors of Communism is more difficult, because they seem to say something even nastier about human nature. This uneasiness that I feel stems from how this, in Zizek's term, "failed emancipatory project", turned out. Failure is clearly an inadequate term for what happened, time after time, with Communism. Failure is what happened to British Socialism in the late 1970's, with the country beset by enormous inflation, political paralysis, social chaos, labor strife, and 'the Winter of Discontent'. No, what happened (and is happening, still, in places) with Communism in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia, North Korea and (to a lesser extent) Cuba, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam was something far more horrific and monstrous than mere failure. In each of these cases, in these radically different cultures, the state, which was supposedly instituted to light the path to utopia, turned inwards and consumed the population.

The lessons of Auschwitz are not difficult to comprehend: guard against bigotry and work to protect the weakest people and groups. What are the lessons of Kolyma, though? This is why I find Communism as it actually exists infinitely more depressing than Fascism. Fascism began with terrible, monstrous intentions, and fulfilled them and in the process merely showed that people will commit horrible crimes for primitive tribal purposes. Communism set out with beautiful intentions, and transformed most places it took hold of into vast necropolises. If this is what happens when people try to build a new utopia, what does it say about us as humans if this, virtually without fail, seems to be the result of a revolutionary striving for change?

|| RPH || 9:26 PM || |