Communism, Fascism, & The Grand March
In a Times Literary Supplement essay reviewing a new book about communism and fascism, John Gray ponders why so many liberals who grasp the evil of fascism fail to appreciate the parallel evil of communism. Excerpt:
The blind spot in The Devil in History is the power of myth in liberal societies. “The demise of Communism in Europe”, Tismaneanu writes, “allowed space for alternative political mythologies, which left a proliferation of fantasies of salvation.” He is referring to post-Communist countries where the Soviet collapse left a vacuum that was filled by ethnocentric nationalism and a post-Holocaust variety of anti-Semitism that demonizes Jews in countries where hardly any Jews remain. But the impact of the collapse was also felt in Western democracies, where it boosted the belief that liberal societies are the only ones that can be fully modern. Commendably, Tismaneanu refuses to play “the obsolete pseudo-Hegelian tune of the ‘ultimate liberal triumph’”. However, the issue is not whether liberalism is destined to prevail – a stale debate about historical inevitability – but whether liberal societies can escape what he aptly describes as “a contagious hubris of modernity”. For those possessed by the idea that the Communist collapse was a triumph for the only truly modern way of life – a species of eschatological myth rather than any kind of empirical observation – the question did not arise. For them, liberalism was the riddle of history solved, and knew itself to be the solution.
The same myth – a hollowed-out version of a religious belief in providence – underpins the abiding appeal of Communism. One of the features that distinguished Bolshevism from Tsarism was the insistence of Lenin and his followers on the need for a complete overhaul of society. Old-fashioned despots may modernize in piecemeal fashion if doing so seems necessary to maintain their power, but they do not aim at remaking society on a new model, still less at fashioning a new type of humanity. Communist regimes engaged in mass killing in order to achieve these transformations, and paradoxically it is this essentially totalitarian ambition that has appealed to liberals. Here as elsewhere, the commonplace distinction between utopianism and meliorism is less than fundamental. In its predominant forms, liberalism has been in recent times a version of the religion of humanity, and with rare exceptions – Russell is one of the few that come to mind – liberals have seen the Communist experiment as a hyperbolic expression of their own project of improvement; if the experiment failed, its casualties were incurred for the sake of a progressive cause. To think otherwise – to admit the possibility that the millions who were judged to be less than fully human suffered and died for nothing – would be to question the idea that history is a story of continuing human advance, which for liberals today is an article of faith. That is why, despite all evidence to the contrary, so many of them continue to deny Communism’s clear affinities with Fascism. Blindness to the true nature of Communism is an inability to accept that radical evil can come from the pursuit of progress.
Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March. … What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.