Briefly Noted: On Communism, Fascism, Liberalism, & the Search for a Utopia

I’ll see your one, and raise you another. In a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement, John Gray reviews Vladimir Tismaneanu’s The Devil in History, which provides an extended criticism of communism in relation to fascism.[1] Gray’s account of Tismaneanu’s book spurred me to mediate some of his thoughts in blog format, and to add a criticism of my own.

In the book, Tismaneanu argues that in many respects Communism and Fascism in the 20th-century were at one. He makes clear that “‘Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment has its own irreducible attributes’” (p. 7). The two political philosophies share similarities, however, that must be acknowledged by those of us living in the 21st-century. Tismaneanu especially wants the attention of political liberals and utopians who think Communism is essentially good even if the Russians and Chinese applied its principles poorly.

Tismaneanu notes that Communism and Fascism shared the view that mass-killings are good for society. He writes, ‘Communism, like Fascism, undoubtedly founded its alternative, liberal modernity on the conviction that certain groups could be deservedly terminated. The Communist project, in such countries as the USSR, China, Cuba, Romania, or Albania, was based precisely on the conviction that certain social groups were irretrievably alien and deservedly murdered.’ (p. 7)

Communism and Fascism also shared ethnocentric, racist, and anti-Semitic beliefs which underlay their political philosophies. Tismaneanu writes as one with first-hand experience, as a child of Jewish parents who directly fought Fascism. His parents joined forces with Communists in order to fight the Fascists. Ironically Tismaneanu’s book endeavors to show “that Communism acquired some of Fascism’s defining characteristics” (p. 7).

In the end, Tismaneanu’s burden is to challenge a liberal intellectual infatuation with the “communist Utopia” (p. 7). These utopians are ones who believe that communist principles are true but that its historical application in recent history went awry due to unforeseen events, circumstances, or psychologies. For instance, Tismaneanu rejects the view that Stalin’s ruthlessness did not stem from his communism but merely from his sociopathic personality. Undoubtedly Stalin was a sociopath. However, Tismaneanu shows “methodological violence and pedagogic terror were integral features of Bolshevik doctrine” (p. 7). Stalin did not invent mass-killings; rather he perfected what Lenin taught.

As Gray notes, not every scholar will find Tismaneanu’s treatment of Communist totalitarianism convincing. Yet, Tismaneanu is certainly correct that in 1918 Russia Bolsheviks spoke of opponents as “byvshie liudi (former people),” which implied that those who were so-called were in fact considered sub-human. Thus these sub-humans could be discarded without much thought. So Gray reminds us, “in politics, the other face of radical evil is an inhuman vision of radical goodness” (p. 7).

This inhuman vision of radical goodness was underlain by a passionately held eschatology. Both Communism and Fascism, Tismaneanus writes, “were fuelled by millenarian religion ….[and] both were militant chiliasms that energized extraordinary ardor among unconditionally committed followers” (p. 8). Although Leninism, which grew into Communism, and Nazism denied alternative construals of meaning (like religion) and progress (like science), they both established themselves on particular world and scientific views: Nazism on the basis of racial hierarchies and eugenics, and Communism on the basis of historical-materialism. It is no surprise, then, that both laid hold of “militant chiliasms” in search of their power.

As a complement to Tismaneanu’s thesis, I wish to add that Liberalism falls under the same scourge. In fact, if I had written the book, I might have eschewed Fascism in favor of Liberalism. Both Liberalism and Communism emerged during an age of Revolution which sought to bring society into conformity with the Enlightenment faith. In order to buttress the Enlightenment vision (which had fallen on hard times in light of the social misery of the Industrial Revolution), true believers in Enlightenment Progress felt the need to compose an even greater myth.

Marxists and Communists applied Darwinism to the social realm, arguing that history is propelled by class conflict. Humanity progresses via class revolutions that eventually would lead to a utopia marked by the redistribution of wealth.

Liberals based their myth on the sovereignty of the individual, and focused on sexual, economic, and political freedom. This freedom often was conceived as autonomy in relation to God, rather than merely freedom in social and political affairs. Their response to the 19th century’s suffering was either to explain it in terms of evolutionary progress (Herbert Spencer) or seek a government-based social justice (John Stuart Mill).

An example is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s thesis is that the end of the Cold War signaled the rise of “a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings.” All of the really big questions will have been settled; hence there will be no further progress in principles and institutions. For him, Western values would triumph. In particular, democratic capitalism would have no competitor; it would be the final form of society. Even religious ideologies would not overturn this. Fukuyama’s is a Hegelian view of history, utopian and wildly optimistic. (It does, however, have some dark strains, such as his focus on the Nietzschean concept of The Last Man.)

One of Fukuyama’s strongest critics has been Samuel Huntington. While he rightly rejects Fukuyama’s Hegelian method and utopian aspirations, however, Huntington himself fares no better by rejecting all “universal” history and leaving himself with only the particulars. In other words, Huntington rejects the notions of God, something beyond this world, and the idea that God is guiding history towards a triumphant ending.

For those of us who are believers, however, there is a master narrative that interprets this world and points towards a time of restoration and hope. In four plot moves—Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation—we learn in broad stroke form both the direction in which history is moving and the framework for interpreting the events, times, and developments of this world. God through Christ is redeeming for himself a people and one day will restore even creation itself. Moreover, the people he redeems for himself will consist of worshipers from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation—a phenomenon that transcends not only cultures and civilizations, but even history itself.

In response to the Enlightenment faith and its utopian myths which reject God and the hope of divine redemption, we offer the Christian faith as the true story of the whole world.






[1] John Gray, “Casualties of Progress” in Times Literary Supplement (January 4, 2013: pp. 7–8); Vladimir Tismaneanu, The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century (U. of California, 2012).