CULTURE

Communism in the plural

“Supposing ‘The Black Book of Communism’ had failed to fully explore the question… » This is how «The Century of Communisms» was hyped when it first came out in France two years ago. Unsurprisingly, «The Century of Communisms,» which was recently published in Greece by Polis, is a response to «The Black Book of Communism,» which portrays the communist movement as intrinsically violent and repressive – a conceptualization mostly identified with Stephane Courtois, a former Maoist, who wrote the now-famous introduction and conclusion to that controversial book. «The Century of Communisms» is a 750-page book prepared under the supervision of Michel Dreyfus, Bruno Groppo, Claudio Sergio Ingerflom, Roland Lew, Bernard Pudal and Serge Wolikow. The reader is warned from the outset: «The ideological, to a large degree, temptation to reduce the diversity and complexity (of communism) to a supposed ‘nature’ of the communist phenomenon that is the product of an organic illusion (communism as a secular religion or a myth of the modern man who thinks he can reform society) or of a unique experiment, almost an accident of history… is primarily the result of an urge for a philosophy of twentieth-century history which is pointless from a scientific perspective.» The writers of «The Century of Communisms,» in other words, accuse Courtois of resorting to what he himself condemns in the communist phenomenon: a rigid metaphysical perspective. «The Century of Communisms,» rather, sets out to analyze the communist phenomenon by examining its plural as well as its singular character. Communism, its contributors say, is a manifold phenomenon which spreads across a wide range of heterogeneous historical, geographical and social contexts. It cannot be reduced to a single, monolithic interpretation. The first part of the book examines the historiography of communism (official, academic, and heretic interpretations). A second part is devoted to the various stages of installation and development of communist regimes in the world (in the Soviet Union, China, Europe, the Arab world, Latin America and so on). Part three gives an historical account of the various types of collective agents and social groups that associated themselves with communism – it traces, in other words, the invention of communist man. The final part focuses on ongoing debates: the question of violence, the anti-fascist movement, communism and the politicization of the working class. Communist violence For the writers of «The Century of Communisms,» communist violence has to be put in context. WWI transformed violence into a constituent element of subsequent individual and social behavior and of political formations. The authoritarian state and dictatorship, the book argues, is not an exclusive feature of real socialism but a basic characteristic of many 20th-century societies. Mass violence was introduced before 1917, before the installation of real socialism, and continued after its fall. Violence is thus an integral characteristic of the 20th century. Communist violence is a product of its age. The aim, it is argued, should be to establish why violence and repression were more intense in some contexts and periods than in others. In Russia, for example, violence took off because it was fueled by strong societal hatred accumulated during a lengthy tradition of czarist despotism. Totalitarianism, a political concept designating a dictatorial form of centralized government which regulates every aspect of state and private behavior – mostly associated in this book with the theory of Hannah Arendt – is denounced as inadequate. Although the authors accept that communism and Nazism bear a considerable number of similarities, such as an all-powerful elite movement, an official state ideology, centralization, and terror, they see the theory of totalitarianism as being confined to a sterilized ideological perspective which is tone-deaf to particular social, economic and cultural conditions. The real villain here is «The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century,» written by the late French historian Francois Furet, who claims that the similarities between Stalinism and Nazism were organic and not contingent. What the writers of «The Century of Communisms» dislike most about the theory of totalitarianism is its tendency to equate the forms of violence exercised by the two systems. Nazism, however, is identified with the maintenance and enhancement of extremism until its demise. In contrast, there is no absolute connection between extreme violence, the gulag, and communist regimes as a whole. According to Raymond Aron, cited in the book, the outcome of communist violence was labor camps; the outcome of Nazi violence was the gas chambers. The Greek translation of the book contains an addendum by Andreas Pandazopoulos, professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Thessaloniki, who largely sums up the arguments presented in the French edition on the controversial issues of violence and totalitarianism. Unfortunately, despite Pandazopoulos’s contribution on understanding Leninist violence, the book remains philosophically uninformed, with hardly any analysis of Marxist Communist ideology and its historicist and positivist view of violence. Above all, «The Century of Communisms» fails to challenge the legitimacy of the goal set by the writers of «The Black Book of Communism.» Providing an overall estimate of the victims of communist regimes, as the latter work does, is no denial of the diversity of the historical and social conditions in which the crimes took place; it is, rather, an attempt to demonstrate that the violent repression of communist regimes was systematic and not coincidental. Selected works