Two 20th-century ideologies promised a utopian vision that would ensure infinite happiness. They both stemmed from a political, social, and cultural construct that erased traditional ideas regarding good and evil. Both believed in the destruction of the old world, to build a new international order; each deplored what they saw as the pathetic ennui of bourgeoisie existence; each ideology’s shared purpose was to recruit members of the new utopia.
Those ideologies happen to be communism and fascism, which together brought an orgy of violence, killed millions, and led humanity to its darkest hour, where the final destination was the deplorable Gulags and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Maryland, noticed how communism and fascism, despite coming from separate ends of the political spectrum—extreme left for the former and extreme right for the latter—surprisingly have much in common. To comprehend the barbarism that plagued the last century, Tismaneanu contends that we must fully come to grips with the thought process that inspired so much destruction. So he sets off to scrupulously examine the intellectual origins, crimes, and failures of these two radical movements in The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.
Tismaneanu isn’t the first to explore this subject matter. In Fascism and Communism, historians Francois Furet and Ernst Nolte, one French and one German, debated the genealogy of the two movements. And in Fascism, Communism and the Consolidation of Democracy: A Comparison of European Dictatorships, Gerhard Besier edited a book of essays that explored the mutual influences both political movements clung to. While Tismaneanu’s effort shares certain similarities with both texts, his central argument focuses for the most part on ideology, and not specific historical events.
Tismaneanu’s book takes its title from the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s observation that Bolshevism and fascism represent two incarnations of the disastrous presence of the devil in history. They were two sides of the same coin of totalitarianism—a political, social, and cultural construct that erased traditional ideas regarding good and evil. Tismaneanu’s lucid narrative walks us through an intellectual landscape that traces the trajectory of totalitarian thinking back to its origins.
This began in 1848, when Karl Marx, along with Fredrick Engels, wrote The Communist Manifesto, and ended, ostensibly, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Tismaneanu spends the majority of his time clearly defining Marxism, neglecting fascism a bit, but there is good reason why he would do this. Marxism as a political theory is over 160 years old. In that time it has gone through various phases, titles, and schisms, including critical, post, and anti-Marxism.
Marxism as a political idea was a failure from the beginning, Tismaneanu contends, because of “its lack of sensitivity to the psychological makeup of mankind,” and because it underestimated “the needs of many for deep spiritual or cultural sources of meaning, and thus the profound importance of the human right to privacy.” When Vladimir Lenin implemented Marx’s ideas into “a potent political weapon of ideological transformation of the world,” he put totalitarianism into action. Without Lenin’s dogmatic vision, which kickstarted the Russian Revolution in October 1917, there would be no totalitarianism, as we now know it. Thus the course of Western civilization, and indeed world history, would have been entirely different. The ideas that Lenin propagated—igniting the insurrection of the masses in politics, making the individual a mere particle in comparison to the absolute belief in the cause—paved the way for all forms of totalitarian thinking that shaped the 20th century.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, the evolutionary psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker specifically equated communist ideology with violence and genocide. Yet he failed to account for how capitalist values also contributed to a significant amount of violence over the course of the 20th century. When I challenged him on this matter in an interview last year, Pinker responded by saying: “However much we might deplore the profit motive, or consumerist values, if everyone just wants iPods, we would probably be better off than if they wanted class revolution.” Tismaneanu, I believe, would agree.
Capitalism, despite being an imperfect system with many problems, understands what Marx failed to grasp: if you socialize the means of production, you undermine the incentives to work and produce poverty instead of wealth. Furthermore, anyone in the communist system unlucky enough to be born in the wrong class or ethnic group were branded enemies of the regime, becoming helpless victims in the mass killings that so often took place in the name of ideology.
As an ideology, Marxism is open to more interpretation than fascism, which arose in Italy in 1919, and died, as a dominant political movement in Europe, along with two of its most famous prophets: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It favors actions over intellectual reason, so it’s a harder concept for an academic to dissect with the same scrutiny as Marxism. The closest Tismaneanu reaches in defining fascism is to quote Mussolini, who wrote in 1932, in the Enciclopedia Italiana:
“Fascism is a religious conception in which man is seen in his immanent relationship with a superior law and with an objective Will [sic] that transcends the particular individual and raises him to a conscious membership in a spiritual society.”
For a more thorough definition, it might be better to turn to political scientist Robert Paxton:
“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a massed-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Tismaneau notes that all fascists shared a common bond in the idea of leadership, their abhorrence of liberalism, and a belief in ultranationalism. But he fails to note exactly what German and Italian fascism shared in common, or how different their worldviews actually were. For example, it’s worth mentioning that Mussolini had little interest in the racial theory that became central to the Nazis' distorted ideology. Neither was anti-Semitism as widespread in Italy as it was in Germany.
What Tismaneau is clear on is how Bolshevism and Nazism both desired a scapegoat to achieve their end goals. In communism this was defined by class, and in National Socialism by race. Each movement subsequently believed this would lead to a triumphant historical epoch: in Nazism, the vision was the thousand-year Reich, while in communism, history would disappear completely, and the proletariat would rule forever.
If communism and fascism merged into “a baroque synthesis,” as Tismaneanu puts it, there were, nevertheless, key distinctions between the two. While Bolshevism was a dictatorship of the proletariat, Nazism was a dictatorship with a voting consensus behind it. In communism, totalitarian thinking was completely enthralled to the party line, whereas in fascism, all ideas stemmed from the magnetic personality of the infallible leader.
The underlying problem with both political movements, however, was their absolute commitment to ideology, which the late Czech president and writer Václav Havel once described as offering “human beings the illusion of identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”
Tismaneanu’s book is a chilling analysis of a century in which mankind aimed to reach the promised land through the power of ideas. It shows that thinking of politics as a simple scientific formula that could be solved, once it was followed to its logical conclusion, seriously underestimates the complexities of the human condition. This was the greatest ideological mistake of the 20th century, paradoxically leading to a frenzy of genocide, thought control, and a complete annihilation of the concept of the individual.