Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge en Noir

Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge en Noir

Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge en Noir

The author of this review is the son of a zek: My father barely survived his deportation to a Siberian camp in Vorkuta.


The author of this review is the son of a zek: My father barely survived his deportation to a Siberian camp in Vorkuta. This, incidentally, adds nothing to the wisdom, or stupidity, of my views on the subject. At most, it suggests that I am not one of those latter-day Columbuses who discovered the gulag in Solzhenitsyn. I mention this fact merely to avoid misunderstandings and superfluous accusations. If you oppose the new orthodoxy, in which the red is painted in black or brown, you are branded as shamefully oblivious to Stalinist–or, to be really in tune, “Bolshevik”–crimes.

“Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,” wrote Walter Benjamin; a Polish wit added that we don’t know yet what our past is going to be. The recent past is now being rewritten at a fast pace. In the revised version Lenin equals Stalin, Communism equals Nazism and Marx is responsible for the concentration camps. All this is needed to prop up the doctrine, erected on the ruins of the Berlin wall, that socialism is dead and buried while capitalism will live forever. My objection to the corpse-counting historians is not that they tell a horrible story. It is that they are reducing a major tragedy–a revolution in a backward country failing to spread and the terrible result then presented to the world as a model–to a grand guignol. And these historians are not doing it to prevent the repetition of horrors in future transformations. They are doing it to destroy the very idea of radical change. They are painting the East in black to whitewash the West.

The opening, still incomplete, of the Soviet archives will not alter our vision fundamentally. We know too much for that. But it should allow us to fill some very important gaps and make it possible to add shading to this dark picture. While serious historians are already busy at it, the books that have hit the headlines are of a different nature. They are either potboilers, spy stories naming names of alleged Soviet agents or propaganda pieces describing the evil of our former enemy to boost both our past and present positions. The Sword and the Shield belongs to the first category. For professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge, England, this is not the first collaboration with a Soviet defector, but this time his partner is particularly strange. We are told that Vasili Mitrokhin, an officer in the external services of the KGB, drew the conclusion from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that his country was unreformable. He therefore took advantage of his position as caretaker of the archives and, between 1972 and his retirement a dozen years later, took notes on the innumerable documents at his disposal, smuggled the notes out and concealed them in his dacha. But it was only in 1992, after the dreaded regime had collapsed, that he contacted the British and then joined them with his treasure.

Thus this book is based not on original documents but on secondhand notes. True, Andrew gives his sources in the footnotes; and so we learn, incidentally, that there is nothing in the “Mitrokhin archive” directly connected with the big stories–the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss or the attempt to assassinate the Pope. But, as Andrew writes about everything, drawing on his own books and indiscriminately from anti-Communist literature, it is all rather confusing. In addition, Andrew uses code names rather than real ones (prudent, given that Oleg Gordievsky, a onetime collaborator, cost publishers damages in an unrelated project for asserting that British Labor leader Michael Foot was a Soviet agent). Even the careful reader, consulting the many footnotes, will have difficulty distinguishing truth from half-truth or innuendo, fact from fiction.

The other drawback is that the really interesting period of the Soviet secret services is the early, heroic one, when foreigners thought they were helping world revolution. Strange as it may seem, this feeling persisted in Stalin’s time. But Professor Andrew has little new to tell us about Richard Sorge, who gave Stalin the unheeded message about the German invasion, or about Britain’s well-known famous Cambridge Five, “traitors to class and country.” Thereafter, when the motives were mercenary, the KGB was not very different from its Western counterparts (naturally, we are talking here about its external, not its domestic, role).

For all its tales, details and secrets, and despite the fact that spying is increasingly economic, The Sword and the Shield leaves one with the impression that cloak-and-dagger stories are splendid stuff for thriller writers but only a marginal tool for the historian. It strengthened my conviction that our writing on the cold war remains terribly slanted. Thus we learn in passing that in the 1948 Italian election, the CIA helped the Christian Democrats against the Communists by “laundering over 10 million dollars from captured Axis funds for use in the campaign.” The authors do not find this shocking: Only Russian gold stinks, the American dollar being Chanel No. 5. The Italian journalists working for a leftish evening paper are supposed to feel ashamed because their publication is alleged to have received some Russian money, whereas the contributors to Encounter, Monat and Preuves, whose checks were cut by the CIA, can proudly parade as champions of cultural freedom. This is consistent with most writing on the cold war, which does not declare a plague on both their houses but poses the struggle as one between Good and Evil.

While The Sword and the Shield simply makes use of that ideology, The Black Book of Communism and The Passing of an Illusion are helping to produce it, and it is not entirely surprising that they should be French. The establishment everywhere has the art of getting the ideological services it requires, but these were needed more in France, which had a strong Communist Party and which in 1968 was shaken by a student rising and a big general strike. When, in the mid-seventies, a structural economic crisis came on top of ideological questioning, the system called to the rescue the so-called “new philosophers.” Having primitively chanted “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Lin Piao,” they simply reversed the slogan and blamed Marx for the concentration camps. They provided no more than seasoning for a mixture of von Hayek, Karl Popper and Solzhenitsyn. But as a theme of sustained propaganda, their warning–you may rebel individually, but if you act collectively to alter society you will end in the gulag–was very effective. Still, its effects did wear off.

With discontent growing again in the nineties and the collapse of the Soviet empire offering an opportunity, a new campaign has been launched to convince people that to move beyond the confines of existing society is terribly dangerous. Here you have two illustrations of this drive, one very vulgar, the other more sophisticated.

It may at first glance seem difficult to pass judgment on The Black Book of Communism, because this collection of essays is very uneven. Nicolas Werth, the author of the longest piece, on the Soviet Union, is a creditable historian. He is aware of the passions and discontent unleashed in war-ravaged Russia and is even ready to recognize that the “Judeo-Bolsheviks,” as their enemies called them, were sometimes also the victims of that violence. His biases, however, are striking. His portrait of Lenin as a fanatic is caricature, and he manages to write a chapter on the civil war without once mentioning foreign intervention. On the other hand, though it does not suit his thesis of “continuity,” he does admit that there is a qualitative difference in repression between Lenin’s and Stalin’s times. It is unfortunate that he agreed to take part in the exercise of propaganda staged by the chief editor of this book.

The main snag with Stéphane Courtois is not the mediocre scholarship of his contributions, of which the chapter on the “Comintern in Action” he co-writes is a good example. Instead of a serious analysis of how the instrument of world revolution became a tool of Soviet policy and how parties with a real following were turned into Moscow’s puppets, we get a potted history in which, say, the Hungarian revolution of 1919 becomes a sinister story about the action of bullies called “Lenin’s Boys.” It is not even that Courtois tries to equate the elimination of the kulaks as a class with the racial extermination of the Jews or, ignoring time and population factors, insists that the Communists killed more people than the Nazis and, therefore, must be equated with them. (This revisionism, incidentally, leads logically to an entirely new vision of World War II; there are already signs of it in this book, notably in the authors’ greater sympathy, in the chapter dealing with Yugoslavia, for the Chetnik Col. Draza Mihailovic, who collaborated with the German occupiers of his land, rather than Tito, who didn’t.) The real trouble is that the whole purpose of this book is, only too obviously, to pile up corpses–victims of bullets, the camps or starvation–to reach the total of 100 million dead (the Chinese provide two-thirds of that total, the bulk accounted for by the famine of 1959-61). Our preachers will use this magic figure to frighten the younger generation with the fate that awaits them should they not play according to the established rules.

We shall return to this 100 million mark, but even in polemics it is better to deal with an opponent of some stature. Stéphane Courtois is known as the “poor man’s Furet”; indeed, if François Furet had not died in 1997, he would have presided over this whole operation. Since Furet’s Passing of an Illusion, a bestseller in France [see Singer, April 17, 1995], has just been published in this country, one might as well tackle the master rather than his epigones. Furet was an original, if controversial, historian of the French Revolution. A member of the CP in his younger days and then a left-wing socialist for years, he ended his career as a pillar of the establishment, a member of the Academy in France, an “Immortal,” and in this country holder of a chair financed by the very unprogressive Olin Foundation. He was also busy preaching that the age of revolution was over. Whereas his more radical colleagues maintained that the French Revolution, bourgeois by nature, was unfinished by definition, he argued that it ended in 1880, when Bastille Day became a national holiday, or otherwise in the eighties, when François Mitterrand brought France into consensus politics. In writing this book about the Soviet Union and Communism, for which he had no academic credentials, Furet probably wanted to show rival historians, who view 1917 as a continuation of 1789, how their dream turned into a nightmare. He apparently also wanted to understand his own earlier infatuation.

Central to Furet’s argument is the belief that in a Europe shaken by World War I, Communism and Fascism were propping each other up. While the totalitarian nature of Stalin’s Russia is undeniable, I find the thesis of “totalitarian twins” both wrong and unproductive. To sustain it, Furet is bound to twist facts. Though he recognizes that Mussolini reached power through a compromise with traditional elites and that Hitler had the backing of big business, the author hotly denies that Fascism and Nazism could be rotten products of capitalism. The Nazi-Soviet pact is for him perfect proof of complicity between the two systems, but the Munich agreement–for which he has all sorts of justifications–is nothing of the sort. Such double standards prevail throughout his book. Notably, in dealing with Spain, Furet is harsh on Soviet action but full of indulgence, nay, understanding, for the British conservatives and their strategy of nonintervention, which insured the victory of Franco.

The basic weakness of both The Black Book of Communism and The Passing of an Illusion is their incapacity to explain anything. If you look at Communism as merely the story of crimes, terror and repression, to borrow the subtitle of the Black Book, you are missing the point. The Soviet Union did not rest on the gulag alone. There was also enthusiasm, construction, the spread of education and social advancement for millions; when this momentum was lost in the Brezhnev years the system was close to the end of its tether. Similarly, it is impossible to grasp the fascination of outsiders for the Soviet myth and their reluctance to see the reality if you don’t view them in their own environment. If you ignore the Great Depression, the strikes and other struggles against exploitation, the colonial oppression and deadly poverty, the wars in Algeria or Indochina–in short, if, like these authors, you idealize the Western world–you cannot comprehend why millions of the best and brightest rallied behind the red flag or why a good section of the Western left turned a blind eye to the crimes committed in its name. History is understanding, not just propaganda.

Which brings us back to the Hundred Million. Propaganda ought to be countered, though not by yet more comparisons with Nazism. If we were to produce another Black Book, one to name misdeeds perpetrated under capitalist regimes, there would be no need to go back to the Industrial Revolution. Sticking just to our cruel century, there are two world wars and numerous massacres, ranging from Armenia in 1915 through Indonesia, with its slaughter of more than half a million, to the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. And since, in this comparison, the accounts are not limited to murder and executions, each annual UN Human Development Report brings us stories of lives lost or shortened through disease, lack of clean water, starvation–in short, through poverty in our increasingly unequal world. Contrary to the tale told by the establishment, young people must be shown that what is immoral and dangerous–because of the ecological limits of our planet–is not the attempt to change our society radically but the willingness to preserve it precisely as it is.

Yet a balancing of corpses is no solution: Even if the victims were a small fraction of the Hundred Million, the wound would be unforgivable and unforgettable. While the criminality of capitalism may be no discovery to us, socialism was supposed to open a new era, and these crimes were committed in its name. It can be objected that socialism could not have died in Eastern Europe because, if we define it as mastery of the working people over their work and their fate, it never lived there. That is right but not sufficient. Nor is it enough to emphasize, again rightly, Russia’s backwardness, its isolation, the resulting task of primitive accumulation. We must proceed much further in our exploration, look critically at the Leninist conception of the party and move beyond it. There should be no taboos whatsoever, and it would be most un-Marxist if Marx himself were not questioned in this re-examination. The whole exercise, however, is worthwhile only on two conditions: First, the judgment, however stern and ruthless, must be made not in the void, in the abstract, but in historical context, taking into account real conditions and the available alternatives. Second, it must serve a practical purpose, so that when the people next take power, it will be to exercise it themselves. In other words, democracy must be not the crowning of the revolutionary process but its central element from the very beginning of the transformation.

For our aim–let us not be ashamed to say so–is to revive the belief in collective action and in the possibility of radical transformation of our lives. On the other hand, the ambition of many is to take advantage of the circumstances, of the terrible heritage, to destroy the Promethean spirit of humankind. You feel it while reading their prose. In his foreword to the Black Book, Martin Malia actually proclaims that “any realistic accounting of Communist crime would effectively shut the door on Utopia.” Furet the historian is too wise to accept Francis Fukuyama’s nonsense about the end of history. One day, he concludes, humankind will resume its search. But, he qualifies, not in our time: “Here we are, condemned to live in the world as it is.” This, let us hope, is their illusion.

What should we name the Parisian providers of this “French flu” and others who spread it on this side of the ocean? To call them scavengers of death would be too Stalinist in style. But it seems fair to describe them as keepers of the cult of TINA–the mindset that There Is No Alternative–preachers of human resignation. Parading as champions of freedom and questers after truth, they are in fact the obedient servants of the established order.

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