A recent New York Times article by Roger Cohen echoed 1950. Titled “1945’s Legacy: A Terror Defeated, Another Arrives,” the article asserted that communism and fascism were both “totalitarian” monsters and suggested that communism may have even been the greater evil, and that many in the “West” still have illusions about communism. Cohen was recycling redbaiting homilies to provide fanfare for Bush’s recent speeches abroad. His assertions are not only false but also a justification for imperialist aggression.
In the 1930s, fascist apologists used the “totalitarian” theory to argue that fascism was a softer form of “totalitarianism” than communism and should be accepted as a defense against communism. The Nazis themselves found this interpretation useful. Through their propaganda machine they used accounts of the great purges in the Soviet Union (which did occur and were great horrors) to try to defeat campaigns to build anti-fascist collective security between the nonfascist capitalist states and the Soviet Union.
After the war, anticommunist ideologues who didn’t want to fight Hitler in the first place found it useful to proclaim him the “mirror image” of Joseph Stalin, and called with a straight face for an all-out war against the two “totalitarian” evils, fascism and communism.
Somehow, U.S cold war policies, the creation of NATO, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the support for dictatorships of the right everywhere, did more to legitimize former fascists as anticommunist “freedom fighters” than they did to fight the remnants of fascism.
In the 1980s, Reagan’s UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick borrowed from old fascist apologists to contend that right-wing dictatorships like El Salvador were “authoritarian” states that deserved support when they were fighting “totalitarian” movements like the Salvadoran popular liberation movement, the FLMN, or socialist governments like Cuba. This provided a rationale for Reagan’s “contra” wars against Nicaragua and Afghanistan, his invasion of Grenada, and support for the ultra-right regime in El Salvador.
But is there any truth in the “totalitarian” theory?
First, the communist movement was a product of the enlightenment, one of the great real movements for freedom and democracy that produced humanism, non-Marxist socialism, and Marxist-Leninist socialism. Communists were internationalists, antimilitarists, antiracists, anti-elitists, while fascists were extreme versions of reactionary nationalism, militarism, racism and elitism.
Communists made social revolutions and built new societies, qualitatively better than they were before, in places like Russia, Cuba, China and Vietnam. Communists also brought about positive changes in the East European countries whose nationalist movements Cohen salutes. Fascists provided protection for the existing ruling class and built war machines to conquer and loot other peoples.
Communist regimes have sometimes used state terror, as the Stalin regime did in the great purges. Such policies were usually in response to great external threats and were a profound departure from Marxist-Leninist theory, communist values, and socialist political culture. This is why most supporters of socialism refused to believe such things had occurred. The enemies of socialism exaggerated and distorted such aberrations to convince the working class that, however bad things were under capitalism, they would be worse under socialism.
In fascism, the terror was to a great extent the end in itself — the organization of Europe and the world on the basis of a hierarchy of “racial states,” the decimation and/or extermination of whole peoples viewed as “useless eaters.”
The fascists could no more bring positive social change to places like occupied France and Greece, not to mention Poland, whose population they decimated, than Bush can bring a higher level of social equality and prosperity to the Iraqi people. What the fascists could do was to cut in their minor allies, the Hungarian, Rumanian, and Ustasha Croatian fascists, on some of the spoils from their conquests, and use these nationalist rightist movements as low-level henchman, helpers in genocide, and cannon fodder.
As Shakespeare said, “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” The faults that created fascism in the past and may be creating new versions of it today lie in our capitalist system, and our imperialist rulers, not in communists, who represent the highest form of opposition to fascism in real life.
The contradiction in human history between great progress and great social suffering was understood most profoundly by Karl Marx when, in discussing British imperialism in India in 1853, he wrote, “When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”
It is the revolutionary process leading to global socialism, a socialism not based on poor countries encircled by powerful capitalist states, that can and will produce human progress free from oppression and repression. The communist movement was and is the theoretical and practical center of that revolutionary process and the Soviet Union was its great beginning.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.