June 26, 2011
BOOK OF THE WEEK: WEEK TWENTY-SIX, 2011
Francois Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, translated from the French by Deborah Furet (Chicago & London: U. of Chicago Press, 1999) "One of the distinctive traits of Communism was its inseparability from a basic illusion, which for many years appeared to be validated by Communism's own history, until it was dispelled by that history. By 'illusion' I do not mean that the participants and supporters of Communism were unaware of what they were doing and accomplished things beyond what was required of them--which is generally the case. I mean rather that Communism sought to conform to the necessary development of historical Reason, and the the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' thus appeared to have a scientific function. It was a different type of illusion from one based on a calculation of ends and means or issuing simply from belief in a just cause; for people lost in history, an illusion of this kind not only gives their life meaning but offers them the comfort of certainty. Unlike an error of judgment which, with the aid of experience, can be discovered, appraised, and corrected, the Communist illusion involved a psychological investment, somewhat like a religious faith even though its object was historical." "This illusion did not 'accompany' Communist history; it made it. Independent of Communist history insofar as it existed prior to experience, the illusion was, at the same time, subject to that history since the truth of its prophecies was contained in its course. Its socket was the political imagination of modern humankind, but it could only survive by constantly adjusting to circumstances. History was its daily bread; the unexpected was continually integrated into its system of beliefs. The only way to get rid of the Communist idea was to stop feeding it. As a belief in salvation through history, it could only be toppled by a radical historical denial, eliminating the need for the adjusting, mending, and patching that were is life's work." "Those constant adjustments are the subject of this book. This is not a history of Communism, even less a history of the Soviet Union; it is a history of the illusion of Communism during the time in which the USSR lent it consistency and vitality. . . ." Id. at ix-x. "There was never any question of instituting Communism in the United States; the point was, rather, to defend democracy all over the world. To this quintessential American role, the tragedy of the German Jews lent a striking moral resonance and urgency that was more palpable in New York than in Paris or London. Once Stalin had turned against Hitler, how could anyone be against Stalin's own regime? The American inventory of political evil was patterned on moral law and was not sufficiently complex to contain two antagonistic tyrannies. Moreover, whereas the Soviet Union had destroyed capitalism, Roosevelt had been content to modify it, a further reason to locate Communism to the left of the New Deal instead of casting it as another enemy of democracy. The Communists themselves set the example by a spectacular rallying to the anti-Fascist alliance. Shortly afterward, the Spanish Civil War would reveal the two camps in confrontation--democracy versus dictatorship. More than three thousand Americans, Communists as well as liberals, for the most part young teachers, set out to fight Franco in the Abraham Lincoln battalion of the International Brigades." Id. at 273-274. "[T]he Second World War completed what the First has begun--the domination of the great political religions over European public opinion--but it annihilated one political religion while crowning and strengthening the other. Victorious, ant-Fascism did not disrupt the moral and political terrain on which it had developed. It deepened the crisis of the democratic idea while appearing to have resolved it. This was the great illusion of the age. It was an illusion from which we are only just emerging, thanks more to the force of circumstance than to intellectual virtue." Id. at 360. "Democracy, by virtue of its existence, creates the need for a world beyond the bourgeoisie and beyond Capital, a world in which a genuine human community can flourish. Throughout this book, the example of a the Soviet Union has confirmed democracy's need for a utopia. . . . But the end of the Soviet world in no way alters the democratic call for another society, and for that very reason we have every reason to believe that the massive failure of Communism will continue to enjoy attenuating circumstance in world opinion, and perhaps even renewed admiration. The Communist idea will not rise again in the form in which it died. The proletarian revolution, Marxist-Leninist science, the ideological election of a party, a territory or an empire have undoubtedly come to an end along with the Soviet Union. The disappearance of these figures familiar to our [twentieth] century brings our age to a close; it does not, however, spell the end of the democratic repertory." Id. at 502-503.).