The Stalinist delusion (repost)

There’s been a lot of discussion on the Monday Message Board, responding to a piece by Gerard Henderson asking why Australian ex-Communists aren’t treated with the same disdain as ex-Nazis (Louis Nowra has said something similar). Meanwhile over at Catallaxy, they’ve been debating Mark Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics This gives me a chance to repost my thoughts on this topic from last year.

Tyler Cowen says

If I could have the answers to five questions in political science/sociology, the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals would be one of them.

I don’t think this is as difficult a question as is often supposed.

Most of the intellectuals who professed support for Communism during the rule of Stalin (and Lenin) were primarily victims of (self-)deception. They supported the stated aims of the Communist Party (peace, democracy, brotherhood), opposed the things the Communists denounced (fascism, racism, exploitation) and did not inquire too closely into whether the actual practice of the Soviet Union and the parties it controlled was consistent with these stated beliefs. I developed this point, and the contrast with the relatively small group of intellectuals who supported the Nazis, in a review of[1] Mark Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics

Two very different types of people have ended up as Communists. First, there are those for whom the central appeal was the cartharsis of a revolutionary smashing of the existing order. This was essentially the same appeal offered by the Nazis, and many of this type changed sides when the mandate of Heaven appeared to shift from one totalitarian party to the other.

On the other hand, there were large numbers of liberals and social democrats who were dissatisfied with the obvious failings of their own countries and accepted, at face value, the claims of the Soviet Union to be a peace-loving, democratic and socially just alternative society. Beatrice and Sydney Webb are prime examples of this sort of ‘fellow-traveler’.

The fellow-travelers may fairly be accused of gullibility and wishful thinking in their assessment of the Soviet Union, but this does not imply that their own ideas contained the seeds of totalitarianism. In fact, unlike the Nazi sympathisers discussed by Lilla, the vast majority of fellow-travelers, including those who took the formal step of joining the Communist Party, ultimately realised they had been deceived. Some repudiated their previous views entirely and became, in the American parlance, neoconservatives. Others simply accepted they had made a mistaken judgement, and adopted a more skeptical view of life, while retaining their old ideals.

There is nothing similar among those attracted to fascism and Nazism. Although Nazi propaganda was mendacious in every detail, it never concealed the fundamentally brutal nature of Nazism. The closest parallel to the ‘fellow traveler’ on the right is supplied by the many decent Catholics who supported Franco as a ‘soldier for Christ’.

After writing this, I recalled something Orwell had to say in response to an early Cold War description of the typical Communist as a fanatical ideologue, subordinating all personal values to the global struggle against capitalism and democracy. As he said (paraphrasing from memory here), “this all sounds convincing, until you try to apply it the Communists you actually know. With the exception of a couple of hundred hardcore members, they are nothing like this. Most drift in, become disillusioned after a while, and drift out again”.

fn1. And also of a couple of books by Christopher Hitchens

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