Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Worst Of The Worst


Ms. Chang is very, very hard on Mao, whom she draws as a monster. Well, he was a monster. The only really interesting question about his monstrousness is where it ranks in the 20th-century scale, among Hitler, Stalin, and the rest.

Personally I'd rank him rather low. China being such a populous nation, he had a lot more material to work with than most dictators. Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea murdered around a quarter of his country's population (and likely ate several of them); but it didn't notice, since that's a small country. Similarly with Pol Pot. Mao was trying out crackpot social experiments on 800 million people, so when the eggs turned into a mess instead of an omelet, the mess was tremendous. Just the famines following the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s saw off 25-30 million souls... but that was only around 3 percent of China's population. You need to decide on some scaling considerations when making these comparisons.

That aside, I have never though Mao was as malicious as, say, Stalin. I am sure he didn't care about the people his policies killed; but I doubt he took actual pleasure in reflecting on their deaths, as I feel sure Stalin did, and probably Hitler, too. Mao's inward reflection on the famine mega-deaths was probably something like: "Darn it, the cadres didn't carry out my instructions properly!" I doubt there was much of an element of: "Well, those people who died were only useless mouths, anyway," which, with Stalin, I feel sure there was. Stalin really seemed to hate peasants. Mao's affection for them was abstract and cold, but I don't think he hated them.


In any case, the great villain of the age that has gone by was surely Lenin. Perfectly cold-blooded, urging the use of terror as a peacetime political instrument, gleefully contemplating the suffering of "class enemies," teaching Hitler and Mao all their techniques. The whole thing comes back to Lenin. Leszek Kolakowski, in _Main Currents of Marxism_, scoffs at Mao's intellectual attainments as (I am working from memory) "a few regurgitated Leninist cliches."

Derbyshire implies that Kolakowski was making the same judgement in moral degree as he himself is. I don't think so. But, anyway, the point is that Derbyshire wants to blame every 20th Century monster on Lenin. By extention, he wants to make equivalent the ideologies of all these monsters.


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.


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.


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.

Read it in its entirety: anything by Zizek is pure gold. Hitchens made a similar, if less devastating, argument against Martin Amis. It's correct, of course, to judge both forms of totalitarianism as wrong, but one is demonstrably more horrible than the other and the distinction cannot be fudged.

No one ever claimed that Hitler betrayed the ideals of Fascism; many claimed that Stalin had betrayed the ideals of the revolution. And so he did.

Now as far as acts go, which is more in tune with Derbyshire's post, there is a distinction between genocides on the grounds of intent. Callous disregard or incompetence or stupidity which killed millions, as in the case of the Great Leap Forward or, more arguably, with the Ukrainian Famine, aren't on a level plane with planned mass murder, much less the planned and intended extermination of a whole ethnic group.

Don't get me wrong, all were horrible and deserve scorn. They all permanently and rightly discredited their ideologies. But Zizek is correct to point out that Naziism was a singular evil, and that communism at least had some good in it at one time. One can't corrupt the already corrupted. Fascism was never good and could never produce decency even in theory.

One thing Zizek doesn't argue that Hitchens did, which is a great buh-buh-buh inspirer when thrown on a wingnut (it is especially good to smack a Randroid with) is that were it not for the Russian Revolution, it is likely that Nazism would have been born in Czarist Russia before it was actually born Germany: under the Czars, Russia was the most anti-semitic society on earth (which is really saying something); the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was, after all, a White Russian invention and distributed by the Czar's secret police, and during the civil war the White areas were notoriously pogramish. There's a lot on the rightwing who would have preferred this outcome. I'm very glad there was a communist revolution, myself.