Posted on Wednesday 23 April 2008

The communist exception

During my recent trip to the Balkans, I was struck by the attitude of people towards communism.

In that country, which endured the most stifling brand of totalitarianism for decades, there is no sense that its passing was a milestone.

Communism is not popular, but neither is it regarded as absolutely evil, like Nazism in Germany, or fascism in Italy or Spain, or apartheid in South Africa.

I visited a fortress that was used as a jail and torture center until 1968. The row of empty cells contained no explanation, and conveyed none of the horror they had seen. Robben Island it wasn’t.

In Enver Hoxha’s house – which has been turned into an “ethnographic museum” – there was no sense that one of Europe’s worst dictators lived there.

I could not imagine Salazar’s family home being turned into the replica of an ordinary Portuguese house in the early 20th century. When I asked the guide how the people view Hoxha, she said some remembered him fondly, others not.

She pointed to a bunch of flowers placed on a table by local admirers for the 23rd anniversary of his death.


Some of the people we spoke to were not shy about noting some of the achievements of the old regime. One pointed out that it had educated a country that was 80% illiterate in 1945. There was no crime or prostitution under the communists, he said.

Our hosts described Hoxha as a tyrant, but they insisted that nothing was black and white. Yes, socialism was an abject failure, but it had positive aspects.

The worst our guide was willing to say about it was: it looked great on paper, but the reality didn’t match the ideals. Unlike fascism, the ideology itself is not stigmatized.

This, of course, is partly a question of generation. Younger people did not mention the positive side of communism. But neither do they see 1992 as a watershed.

All, young and old, insist on the corruption of the current leadership. You might say: it is understandable for people to highlight the problems they face – those of today, not those of the past.

Current leaders don’t deserve to be thanked just because they are not communist. All very true. Similarly, it would be absurd to ignore the failings of the ANC for the sake of the past struggle against apartheid.

But the comparison with South Africa highlights a big difference. Few of those who criticize Mbeki, Zuma et al would have anything good to say about apartheid; the same is not true of communism is that small country.

Communism, on the other hand, is controversial. It is not taboo, something that must be condemned in polite society – that would attract the comment “inveigh against it” in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.

I see this as another example of what Jean-François Revel called communism’s “most favored totalitarianism” status.

Retour des Balkans

J’ai été frappé, lors du séjour que je viens de passer dans un ex-pays communiste, par l’attitude de la population vis-à-vis de l’ancien régime.

Son renversement n’a pas l’aura glorieuse dont resplendit la chute de la monarchie française, du nazisme, ou des dictatures latines.

Cette petite nation, naguère coupée du reste du monde et sujette au totalitarisme le plus écrasant, n’estime pas être passée de l’ombre à la lumière en 1992.

Certes, le communisme fait l’objet d’une condamnation officielle.

Le musée d’histoire national de Tirana contient une exposition permanente intitulée “génocide et la terreur communiste, 1944-1992”.

Mais les crimes soulignés par les tous gens à qui j’ai parlé étaient ceux des dirigeants actuels – lesquels sont en gros les même depuis 16 ans.

Mes interlocuteurs dénonçaient notamment la corruption généralisée.

Et sans défendre l’ancienne dictature, beaucoup faisaient valoir ses réalisations: électrification, industrialisation, disparition de l’analphabétisme, etc.

Personne dans ce pays ne regrette le communisme, mais il n’incarne pas un système absolument infâme.

On dira: il est bien normal que les gens mettent l’accent sur les maux qui les concernes, ceux d’aujourd’hui, au lieu de ruminer ceux d’hier.

Les dirigeants actuels ne méritent pas la reconnaissance éternelle du peuple sous prétexte qu’ils ne sont pas communistes.

Tout cela est exact.

De même, il serait absurde de fermer les yeux sur les manquements de l’ANC au nom du combat contre l’apartheid.

Mais la comparaison avec l’Afrique du sud souligne une différence de taille: les critiques adressées à Mbeki, Zuma et consort ne vont pas de pair avec une indulgence quelconque envers l’ancien régime.

Quelles que soient les réussites dont il pourrait se prévaloir, ce système continue de faire l’objet d’un opprobre aussi absolu que mérité.

Il en est de même pour le fascisme espagnol, italien, ou portugais.

Toute personne cherchant à rendre hommage à Franco, Mussolini, ou Salazar se met au ban de la démocratie, et doit le faire la plupart du temps en cachette.

En revanche, Enver Hoxha fait l’objet d’une nostalgie ouverte.

Dans sa maison natale, transformée un “musée ethnographique”, les communistes locaux sont très officiellement venus déposer une gerbe pour le 23e anniversaire de sa mort.

Je ne dis pas que le communisme soit populaire dans ce pays, ou qu’il risque de revenir au pouvoir: il est controversé, défendu par certains, haï par la plupart.

Mais cela souligne la différence avec les dictatures de droite. Celles-ci ne font pas l’objet de débat, mais de tabou.

Tout citoyen responsable doit les condamner (“Tonner contre”, aurait prescrit Flaubert dans son Dictionnaire des idées reçues.)

Ce tabou n’existe pas pour le communisme, qui bénéficie de ce que Revel appelait “la clause du totalitarisme le plus favorisé”.

Sardanapale @ 5:33 pm
Filed under: General andTerrorism
    April 24, 2008 | 8:26 am

    Very interesting article.
    In spite of everything, we (in the West) have moved on a bit. Compare the worldwide enthusiasm for Communism in the Soviet era with the striking lack of anything resembling a fan club for China. Something has changed!

    April 25, 2008 | 10:08 am

    Dear Barnaby – your comment raises a very interesting issue. I apologise in advance for this lengthy response, but I think it deserves it.

    I would agree with you that attitudes towards communism have changed in the West, and that that is a good thing.

    The change is deeper in some countries than in others.

    In Italy socialism has been wiped out as a political force – former communists don’t even call themselves left-wing any more! – while in France the anti-capitalist hard-left still accounts for 10% of the electorate.

    But it strikes me that the change is not complete – things have moved only “a bit”, as you say.

    Communism has been discredited as a political system, but not as an ideal. It does not incur the same moral ignominy as its “frère ennemi”, Nazism.

    The Western view of communism today, it seems to me, can be summarised thus: nice in principle, but it does not work in practice.

    There is even a lingering nostalgia (e.g. the enduring cult of Che Guevara) that simply does not exist for fascism.

    The saddest thing about this unwillingness to discard communism totally in the West is that it was not always thus.

    I recently re-read a 1993 TLS review of a collection of essays by left-wingers, and was struck by the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism, progressive types had drawn the correct conclusion: that the socialist utopia had been utterly and completely shown to be a monstrosity, and that democracy goes hand in hand with a market system.

    Thus Marxist thinker Alex Callinicos: “As the twentieth century draws to a close, the prosperous liberal democracies preside triumphant over the world. Not only has the coalition of states which opposed them collapsed, but its claim to represent a rival and superior social system is thoroughly discredited.”

    Danilo Zolo wrote that the socialist alternative has “fallen without glory” and “what can be taken for granted is not the future triumph of an actually existing or imaginary socialism, but in its place the absolute supremacy of capitalism and market economy.”

    Another leftist noted that “every contemporary capitalist democratic society is capitalist”.

    Yet another, in a summary of Latin America, dismissed the Communist alternative as “increasingly anachronistic and unviable: the Cuban model has been ideologically vanquished, delegitimized as well as materially crippled by the evaporation of communism and the Soviet Union.”

    Re-reading this, I realised that these salutary lessons have been unlearned over the past 15 years.

    Anti-capitalism, or at the very least hostility to markets, is very much once again a powerful ideological trend on the Left.

    And in France, it is close to being a national creed. Returning from my trip I heard my agriculture minister say: “On ne doit pas laisser l’alimentation des gens, question vitale, à la merci des seules lois du marché et de la spéculation internationale.”

    April 28, 2008 | 3:17 pm

    I agree with Sardanapale, it is also present in the young UK leftish mouvement. I chat with a person who argued that it was because it was not properly implemented… I guess it’s because if there was one thing the communist were good at, it was propaganda. You just have to read what people like Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine have to say about Friedman… they still use the communist filter, that inversed the values, makes freedom appears like enslavement, and enslavement like freedom.

    April 29, 2008 | 10:11 am

    Pour abonder dans le sens d’Arnaud, je dirai que les altermondialistes d’aujourd’hui ont en commun avec les communistes d’hier non seulement la haine du capitalisme, mais la haine tout court.

    Malraux, en 1949, disait de la mentalité stalinienne: “Ce qu’il faut pour ce mode de pensée, ce n’est pas que l’adversaire soit un adversaire, c’est qu’il soit ce qu’on appelait au XVIIIe siècle un scélérat. C’est d’ailleurs ce qu’elle a de plus fatigant.”

    Ce mode de pensée reste celui de la gauche radicale.

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