[Paleopsych] LRB: Slavoj Zizek: The Two Totalitarianisms

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Slavoj Zizek: The Two Totalitarianisms
London Review of Books 
Vol. 27 No. 6 dated 17 March 2005

    A small note - not the stuff of headlines, obviously - appeared in the
    newspapers on 3 February. In response to a call for the prohibition of
    the public display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, a group of
    conservative members of the European Parliament, mostly from
    ex-Communist countries, demanded that the same apply to Communist
    symbols: not only the hammer and sickle, but even the red star. This
    proposal should not be dismissed lightly: it suggests a deep change in
    Europe's ideological identity.

    Till now, to put it straightforwardly, Stalinism hasn't been rejected
    in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous
    aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye
    Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable. Why? To take another
    example: in Germany, many CDs featuring old East German Revolutionary
    and Party songs, from `Stalin, Freund, Genosse' to `Die Partei hat
    immer Recht', are easy to find. You would have to look rather harder
    for a collection of Nazi songs. Even at this anecdotal level, the
    difference between the Nazi and Stalinist universes is clear, just as
    it is when we recall that in the Stalinist show trials, the accused
    had publicly to confess his crimes and give an account of how he came
    to commit them, whereas the Nazis would never have required a Jew to
    confess that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German
    nation. The reason is clear. Stalinism conceived itself as part of the
    Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to
    any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as
    responsible for his crimes. But for the Nazis the guilt of the Jews
    was a fact of their biological constitution: there was no need to
    prove they were guilty, since they were guilty by virtue of being

    In the Stalinist ideological imaginary, universal reason is
    objectivised in the guise of the inexorable laws of historical
    progress, and we are all its servants, the leader included. A Nazi
    leader, having delivered a speech, stood and silently accepted the
    applause, but under Stalinism, when the obligatory applause exploded
    at the end of the leader's speech, he stood up and joined in. In Ernst
    Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, Hitler responds to the Nazi salute by
    raising his hand and saying: `Heil myself!' This is pure humour
    because it could never have happened in reality, while Stalin
    effectively did `hail himself' when he joined others in the applause.
    Consider the fact that, on Stalin's birthday, prisoners would send him
    congratulatory telegrams from the darkest gulags: it isn't possible to
    imagine a Jew in Auschwitz sending Hitler such a telegram. It is a
    tasteless distinction, but it supports the contention that under
    Stalin, the ruling ideology presupposed a space in which the leader
    and his subjects could meet as servants of Historical Reason. Under
    Stalin, all people were, theoretically, equal.

    We do not find in Nazism any equivalent to the dissident Communists
    who risked their lives fighting what they perceived as the
    `bureaucratic deformation' of socialism in the USSR and its empire:
    there was no one in Nazi Germany who advocated `Nazism with a human
    face'. Herein lies the flaw (and the bias) of all attempts, such as
    that of the conservative historian Ernst Nolte, to adopt a neutral
    position - i.e. to ask why we don't apply the same standards to the
    Communists as we apply to the Nazis. If Heidegger cannot be pardoned
    for his flirtation with Nazism, why can Lukács and Brecht and others
    be pardoned for their much longer engagement with Stalinism? This
    position reduces Nazism to a reaction to, and repetition of, practices
    already found in Bolshevism - terror, concentration camps, the
    struggle to the death against political enemies - so that the
    `original sin' is that of Communism.

    In the late 1980s, Nolte was Habermas's principal opponent in the
    so-called Revisionismusstreit, arguing that Nazism should not be
    regarded as the incomparable evil of the 20th century. Not only did
    Nazism, reprehensible as it was, appear after Communism: it was an
    excessive reaction to the Communist threat, and all its horrors were
    merely copies of those already perpetrated under Soviet Communism.
    Nolte's idea is that Communism and Nazism share the same totalitarian
    form, and the difference between them consists only in the difference
    between the empirical agents which fill their respective structural
    roles (`Jews' instead of `class enemy'). The usual liberal reaction to
    Nolte is that he relativises Nazism, reducing it to a secondary echo
    of the Communist evil. However, even if we leave aside the unhelpful
    comparison between Communism - a thwarted attempt at liberation - and
    the radical evil of Nazism, we should still concede Nolte's central
    point. Nazism was effectively a reaction to the Communist threat; it
    did effectively replace class struggle with the struggle between
    Aryans and Jews. What we are dealing with here is displacement in the
    Freudian sense of the term (Verschiebung): Nazism displaces class
    struggle onto racial struggle and in doing so obfuscates its true
    nature. What changes in the passage from Communism to Nazism is a
    matter of form, and it is in this that the Nazi ideological
    mystification resides: the political struggle is naturalised as racial
    conflict, the class antagonism inherent in the social structure
    reduced to the invasion of a foreign (Jewish) body which disturbs the
    harmony of the Aryan community. It is not, as Nolte claims, that there
    is in both cases the same formal antagonistic structure, but that the
    place of the enemy is filled by a different element (class, race).
    Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely
    inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces
    this essential antagonism.

    It's appropriate, then, to recognise the tragedy of the October
    Revolution: both its unique emancipatory potential and the historical
    necessity of its Stalinist outcome. We should have the honesty to
    acknowledge that the Stalinist purges were in a way more `irrational'
    than the Fascist violence: its excess is an unmistakable sign that, in
    contrast to Fascism, Stalinism was a case of an authentic revolution
    perverted. Under Fascism, even in Nazi Germany, it was possible to
    survive, to maintain the appearance of a `normal' everyday life, if
    one did not involve oneself in any oppositional political activity
    (and, of course, if one were not Jewish). Under Stalin in the late
    1930s, on the other hand, nobody was safe: anyone could be
    unexpectedly denounced, arrested and shot as a traitor. The
    irrationality of Nazism was `condensed' in anti-semitism - in its
    belief in the Jewish plot - while the irrationality of Stalinism
    pervaded the entire social body. For that reason, Nazi police
    investigators looked for proofs and traces of active opposition to the
    regime, whereas Stalin's investigators were happy to fabricate
    evidence, invent plots etc.

    We should also admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of
    Stalinism. It is, in this respect, a scandal that the Frankfurt School
    failed to produce a systematic and thorough analysis of the
    phenomenon. The exceptions are telling: Franz Neumann's Behemoth
    (1942), which suggested that the three great world-systems - New Deal
    capitalism, Fascism and Stalinism - tended towards the same
    bureaucratic, globally organised, `administered' society; Herbert
    Marcuse's Soviet Marxism (1958), his least passionate book, a
    strangely neutral analysis of Soviet ideology with no clear
    commitments; and, finally, in the 1980s, the attempts by some
    Habermasians who, reflecting on the emerging dissident phenomena,
    endeavoured to elaborate the notion of civil society as a site of
    resistance to the Communist regime - interesting, but not a global
    theory of the specificity of Stalinist totalitarianism. How could a
    school of Marxist thought that claimed to focus on the conditions of
    the failure of the emancipatory project abstain from analysing the
    nightmare of `actually existing socialism'? And was its focus on
    Fascism not a silent admission of the failure to confront the real

    It is here that one has to make a choice. The `pure' liberal attitude
    towards Leftist and Rightist `totalitarianism' - that they are both
    bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the
    rejection of democratic and humanist values etc - is a priori false.
    It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally
    `worse' than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even
    possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to
    produce the conclusion - explicit or implicit - that Fascism was the
    lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat. When,
    in September 2003, Silvio Berlusconi provoked a violent outcry with
    his observation that Mussolini, unlike Hitler, Stalin or Saddam
    Hussein, never killed anyone, the true scandal was that, far from
    being an expression of Berlusconi's idiosyncrasy, his statement was
    part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European
    identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper
    context in which to understand the European conservatives' call for
    the prohibition of Communist symbols.

    [14]Slavoj Zizek, a psychoanalyst and dialectical materialist
    philosopher, is a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana and
    international co-director of the Centre for Humanities at Birkbeck
    College in London.


   14. http://www.lrb.co.uk/contribhome.php?get=zize01

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