Vladimir Tismaneanu


Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Ahmanson Foundation Humanities Endowment Fund of the University of California Press Foundation.

In memory of Tony Judt, Leszek Kolakowski, and Robert C. Tucker, great scholars and noble intellectuals, whose writings inspired many reflections in this book.


This is a book about political passions, radicalism, utopian ideals, and their catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century’s experiments in massive social engineering. More precisely, it is an attempt to map and explain what Hannah Arendt called “the ideological storms” of a century second to none in violence, hubris, ruthlessness, and human sacrifices. I began thinking about these issues as a teenager in Communist Romania, when I had the chance to read a clandestinely circulated copy of Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon. I was born after World War II to revolutionary parents who had embraced anti-Fascist Communist values before the war. They had fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, where my father lost his right arm at the age of twenty-four at the battle of river Ebro; my mother—a medical school student—worked as a nurse. I grew up listening to countless conversations about major figures of world Communism, as well as the Stalinist atrocities. Names like Palmiro Togliatti, Rudolf Slansky, Maurice Thorez, Josip Broz Tito, Ana Pauker, or Dolores Ibarruri were frequently whispered during dinner table conversations.

Later, as a sociology student at the University of Bucharest, I ignored the official calls to distrust “bourgeois ideology” and did my utmost to get hold of forbidden books by Milovan Djilas, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Leszek Kolakowski, and other antitotalitarian thinkers. Confronted with the grotesque follies of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dynastic Communism, I realized that I was living in a totalitarian regime run by a delusional leader who exerted absolute control over the population via the Communist Party and the secret police. It was for this reason that I became intensely interested in the occulted traditions of Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School theorists’ attempt to rehabilitate subjectivity. My PhD dissertation, defended in 1980, was entitled Revolution and Critical Reason: The Political Theory of the Frankfurt School and Contemporary Left-Wing Radicalism. From the writings of Theodore W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, I learned about the tribulations of negativity in the age of total administration and inescapable alienation. I read Georg Lukacs, Karl Korsch, and Antonio Gramsci, and I found in their ideas (especially their early writings) an antidote to the mindless optimism of Marxism-Leninism.

Although Romania was a socialist state committed to Marxist tenets and thus ostensibly left-wing, especially after 1960, the ruling party started to embrace themes, motifs, and obsessions of the interwar Far Right. When Nicolae Ceau?escu came to power in 1965, he exacerbated this trend, and the ideology came to blend residual Leninism with an unavowed yet unmistakable Fascism. This was only an apparent paradox. Years later, when I read Robert C. Tucker’s masterful biography of Stalin, I was struck by his brilliant analysis of “Bolshevism of the Extreme Right.” As in the case of the Soviet Union after 1945, or of Poland during the last years of Wladislaw Gomulka’s rule with the rise to power of the ultranationalist faction of the Partisans, headed by minister of the interior, General Mieczyslaw Moczar, the Romanian Communist regime was becoming increasingly idiosyncratic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic. When I published my history of Romanian Communism in 2003, I coined a term for this hybridization: national-Stalinism. During all these years I thought about the deep affinities between apparently irreconcilable movements and ideologies. I reached the conclusion that, in times of moral and cultural disarray, Communism and Fascism can merge into a baroque synthesis. Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment had its own irreducible attributes, but they shared a number of phobias, obsessions, and resentments that could generate toxic alliances, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Furthermore, their geographical proximity allowed the unfolding of genocidal practices between 1930 and 1945 in what Timothy Snyder called the “Bloodlands,” which took a toll of approximately 14 million people. This disaster started with Stalin’s war on peasants, especially in Ukraine, and culminated in the absolute horror of the Holocaust.

This is a book about the incarnation of diabolically nihilistic principles of human subjugation and conditioning in the name of presumably pure and purifying goals. It is not a historical treatise (although history is present on every page), but rather a political-philosophical interpretation of how maximalist utopian aspirations can lead to the nightmares of Soviet and Nazi camps epitomized by Kolyma and Auschwitz. I discuss the major similarities, the saliently irreducible distinctions, and the contemporary reverberations of these totalitarian tyrannies. I also examine the deradicalization of Soviet-style regimes, the exhaustion of ideological fervor, and the rise of alternative, civic-oriented expressions of democratic sensibilities. The purpose of this book is to provide readers (students, journalists, historians, political scientists, philosophers, and a general audience) with some conclusions about a cataclysmic time that no words could capture as accurately and as disturbingly as the paintings of the German artist Anselm Kiefer. Like those canvases, the twentieth century has left behind a devastated landscape full of corpses, dashed illusions, failed myths, betrayed promises, and unprocessed memories.

Many of this book’s ideas were discussed with my late friend, the great historian Tony Judt. I also had the privilege to engage in many conversations with one of the wisest analysts of Marxism and Soviet Communism, Robert C. Tucker. Both Judt and Tucker emphasized the immense role of ideas in history and warned against any kind of positivistic determinism. They taught about the frailty of liberal values, and about the obligation to not give up but rather to continue fighting for them against all odds. The Polish thinker Leszek Kolakowski, often and accurately described as the philosopher of Solidarity, also had a major influence in shaping my ideas. I was the first to translate an essay by Kolakowski into Romanian in the late 1980s, in the alternative cultural journal Agora, which was published in the United States, edited by dissident poet Dorin Tudoran, and distributed illegally in Romania. I sent a copy to Leszek Kolakowski, who responded with a wonderful letter saying that, although he did not read Romanian, he could make sense, using his Latin and French, of my short introduction. One of the major projects I undertook in post-Communist Romania was to coordinate the publication of a translation of his masterful trilogy on the main currents of Marxism. Nobody grasped better than Kolakowski the appalling presence of the devil in the totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century. All three hoped that mankind would internalize a few lessons from these catastrophes. I dedicate this book to the memory of these three major scholars.

Such a synthesis cannot be achieved in a few years. Overly optimistic, I signed a contract with the University of California Press in 2004, convinced that I would finish the book by the end of 2005. Then I realized that there were still too many issues I needed to think about. In the following years, I got involved in the institutional effort to analyze the Communist dictatorship in Romania. I learned terrifying details about the Stalinist technologies of destructiveness employed by Romanian communists. The work for this book started in 2001, when Tony Judt offered me the possibility to spend a month at the Remarque Institute at the New York University, where I presented a lecture on topics directly related to this volume, focusing on the French polemics around the Livre Noir du communisme. I continued my research in June 2002 as a one-month fellow at the Institute for the Sciences of Man (IWM) in Vienna. In January 2003, I was a fellow at Indiana University’s Institute for the Humanities, where I gave a lecture on the totalitarian temptation and benefited from Jeffrey C. Isaac’s insightful comments. In 2008-2009, as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, I conducted research on twentieth-century utopian radicalism as well as moral justice in post-Communist Romania. I benefited from the exceptional research skills of my two assistants, Eliza Gheorghe and Mark Moll. Books continued to come out that inspired me to rethink some of the early hypotheses, including Robert Gellately’s path-breaking work Lenin, Stalin, Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (2007), which I reviewed in the

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