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London Review of Books
March 17, 2005

The Two Totalitarianisms
By Slavoj Zizek

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? To take another example: in Germany, many CDs featuring old East German Revolutionary and Party songs, from Stalin, Freund, Genosse to Die Partei hat immer Recht, are easy to find. You would have to look rather harder for a collection of Nazi songs. Even at this anecdotal level, the difference between the Nazi and Stalinist universes is clear, just as it is when we recall that in the Stalinist show trials, the accused had publicly to confess his crimes and give an account of how he came to commit them, whereas the Nazis would never have required a Jew to confess that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. The reason is clear. 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. A Nazi leader, having delivered a speech, stood and silently accepted the applause, but under Stalinism, when the obligatory applause exploded at the end of the leader's speech, he stood up and joined in. In Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, Hitler responds to the Nazi salute by raising his hand and saying: 'Heil myself!' This is pure humour because it could never have happened in reality, while Stalin effectively did 'hail himself' when he joined others in the applause. 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.

We do not find in Nazism any equivalent to the dissident Communists who risked their lives fighting what they perceived as the 'bureaucratic deformation' of socialism in the USSR and its empire: there was no one in Nazi Germany who advocated 'Nazism with a human face'. Herein lies the flaw (and the bias) of all attempts, such as that of the conservative historian Ernst Nolte, to adopt a neutral position - i.e. to ask why we don't apply the same standards to the Communists as we apply to the Nazis. If Heidegger cannot be pardoned for his flirtation with Nazism, why can Lukács and Brecht and others be pardoned for their much longer engagement with Stalinism? This position reduces Nazism to a reaction to, and repetition of, practices already found in Bolshevism - terror, concentration camps, the struggle to the death against political enemies - so that the 'original sin' is that of Communism.

In the late 1980s, Nolte was Habermas's principal opponent in the so-called Revisionismusstreit, arguing that Nazism should not be regarded as the incomparable evil of the 20th century. Not only did Nazism, reprehensible as it was, appear after Communism: it was an excessive reaction to the Communist threat, and all its horrors were merely copies of those already perpetrated under Soviet Communism. Nolte's idea is that Communism and Nazism share the same totalitarian form, and the difference between them consists only in the difference between the empirical agents which fill their respective structural roles ('Jews' instead of 'class enemy'). The usual liberal reaction to Nolte is that he relativises Nazism, reducing it to a secondary echo of the Communist evil. However, even if we leave aside the unhelpful comparison between Communism - a thwarted attempt at liberation - and the radical evil of Nazism, we should still concede Nolte's central point. Nazism was effectively a reaction to the Communist threat; it did effectively replace class struggle with the struggle between Aryans and Jews. What we are dealing with here is displacement in the Freudian sense of the term (Verschiebung): 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.

It's appropriate, then, to recognise the tragedy of the October Revolution: both its unique emancipatory potential and the historical necessity of its Stalinist outcome. We should have the honesty to acknowledge that the Stalinist purges were in a way more 'irrational' than the Fascist violence: its excess is an unmistakable sign that, in contrast to Fascism, Stalinism was a case of an authentic revolution perverted. Under Fascism, even in Nazi Germany, it was possible to survive, to maintain the appearance of a 'normal' everyday life, if one did not involve oneself in any oppositional political activity (and, of course, if one were not Jewish). Under Stalin in the late 1930s, on the other hand, nobody was safe: anyone could be unexpectedly denounced, arrested and shot as a traitor. The 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.

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. When, in September 2003, Silvio Berlusconi provoked a violent outcry with his observation that Mussolini, unlike Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, never killed anyone, the true scandal was that, far from being an expression of Berlusconi's idiosyncrasy, his statement was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper context in which to understand the European conservatives' call for the prohibition of Communist symbols.