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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Fascisme et communisme : peut-on les comparer ?

by Sébastien Crépel

Can Fascism And Communism Be Compared?

Translated Saturday 24 November 2012, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Bill Scoble

A round table discussion with the leader of the French Communists and three academics.

A round table discussion with Pierre Laurent, the national secretary of the French Communist Party, Sophie Coeuré, associate professor at Paris VII (Diderot) University, Romain Ducoulombier, research associate at the Center for History at the Institute for Political Studies, and Nicolas Werth, research director at the Institute for the History of the Present (CNRS).

The discussion took place in the context of the 15th “Meetings on History” (Rendez-vous de l’histoire), held from Oct. 18 to 21 in Blois. One of the subjects of debate was: “Fascism and Communism, pertinence of a comparison today.”

For Jean Birnbaum, chief editor of Le Monde des livres, who directed the debate, the question became an issue again during the French presidential election campaign, when the right wing accused the Socialist Party of entering a shameful alliance with “the far left” and the communists. However, this comparison of the two “fronts” (the Left Front and the National Front), treated as similar, did not arouse wide-spread controversy. Have communism and its incarnations in 20th-century societies become “cold” subjects of history? Is it legitimate to compare the two types of regime? Does comparing them amount to assimilating them? Such were the questions debated on Oct. 26 by three specialists in the history of communism and Pierre Laurent, the national director of the French Communist Party.

The hot question of comparing fascism and communism no longer arouses a hot discussion. Does this mean that it has become an accepted fact?

Pierre Laurent: The theme cropped up again in a significant way during last Spring’s election campaign. The right wing brought it up again and tried to make use of it, precisely between the two rounds of the presidential elections, when Nicolas Sarkozy directly occupied the ideological terrain of the far right. Historically, every time that this theme has been used, it has been done in order to clear the right-wing forces of responsibility when they have moved towards the far right. To clear them, but also to disqualify the alternative represented by the Left Front. This lumping together of fascism and communism is a weapon that has been used repeatedly, as for example at the end of the Second World War. In the 1970s, philosophers like Bernard-Henri Lévy used it to disqualify the communist component of the common program. This theme is still used today by the leaders of the right in the European Union, as can be seen from the resolution that was adopted by the European Parliament in 2009 and which lumps together fascism and communism. So I reject this lumping together. Similarly, racism is proclaimed by the fascists. On the other hand, communism proclaims the exact opposite: human liberation. And when totalitarian phenomena develop under regimes that claim to be communist, this is done against communist ideals, and even against communists themselves, whom Stalin exterminated en masse. These totalitarian powers killed the system itself. Hence there is a fundamental opposition between the two value systems.

Romain Ducoulombier: For me as a teacher, this concept is a short cut. They ask us to teach the idea that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian country, not only under Stalin, but integrally, from 1917 to 1991, which, at the very least, is debatable. Among our students, this seems to have become a part of everyday life. This is a striking development. And yet, the concept of totalitarianism is not a Cold War concept; It was invented and proclaimed by the fascists in Italy…

Sophie Coeuré: We need to try and understand why these questions are the object of a “cold memory." The European Parliament resolution mentioned by Pierre Laurent was mainly pushed by the new arrivals in the European Union, the Baltic countries, where the memory of the two occupations, Nazi and then Soviet, is everything but a cold memory. For France, the question is linked to the Communist Party. In historiographic terms, the comparison helps us to work, for example in comparing the decisional modes and the modes of power, and to reflect on questions like fear in politics, and so on. This is a tool in reflection; but we also conduct this reflection in relation to this investment in memory. While fascism is no longer at stake in politics, in the sense that nobody claims to be fascist any more, antifascism remains a stake in politics. Pierre Laurent, you proclaim yourself to be an anti-fascist. You refer to the Cold War. The American foundations greatly subsidized the Congress for the Freedom of Culture, which imported the concept of totalitarianism to France. Raymond Aron used this concept, but he distinguished between the intentions of a generous program and a destructive program. When you say that it has always been the right wing that has used this argument to disqualify its opponents, this is not accurate from a historical point of view. The term “fascist” was also used by the communists to disqualify, right from 1945, Tito, the Americans, and so on. What interests historians is to return to these debates not only in a very practical way (who finances what?) but also in terms of the intellectual and political context, so as to explain their development in the 1970s, among those who have been called the “new philosophers,” with the Nobel Prize awarded to Solzhenitsyn, and so on.

Nicolas Werth, what thoughts does this debate on the concept of totalitarianism inspire in you?

Nicolas Werth: As a historian, I don’t think in terms of the same categories as politicians. A lot of progress has been made in historiography. To the same degree that it was possible to work on the social reality of Nazism, to that same degree it was difficult, due to the inaccessibility of the archives, to work on the history of the Soviet Union. Henceforth, the more the historians work on East European societies, the more one sees that, behind an apparently fixed framework, one plunges in reality into the depths of national histories because, fundamentally, communism forms a part of these much longer national histories, even though differences exist in the way dictatorships operated, the response to the needs of society, support for resistance, etc; — all kinds of parameters which vary. Having said that, I don’t agree with Pierre Laurent when he says that the Bolsheviks rejected political violence. You just have to read Lenin’s writings; in them, violence is the driving force in history. This espousal of violence doesn’t solely exist in Stalin’s work, but also in Lenin’s. So things are a little more complicated than what you’re suggesting: on the one hand, the condemnation of Nazi and fascist violence, but this espousal of violence as the driving force in history and in the class struggle is at the heart of Leninist practice.

Pierre Laurent, you embody a communist party that describes itself as very open, and which no longer espouses the dictatorship of the proletariat, but which describes communism as a different way of living together. Are you ready to turn the page on certain parts of the past? How is it that you aren’t taking advantage of the situation to set things straight with a certain tradition that has kept up a certain socialist and revolutionary hope, beyond the Stalinist experience? Why do you continue to speak in the cold war mode, according to which the very concept of totalitarianism is a CIA invention, as if it was a question of discrediting any other experience of socialism.

Pierre Laurent: Am I the descendant of a democratic socialist tendency such as you have described it? The answer is yes. But the question that you then ask is the following: Did the communists of the 20th century desire what happened? On that point, I reject your answer. History shows that totalitarian phenomena were to distort and kill the system, with the collapse of the Soviet Union forming the final result in this shipwreck. How did this collapse come about? Because it developed in opposition to the communist idea. We think that all those who still have an emancipatory ambition to surpass capitalism today have a duty to come together, if they share the struggle of the communists.

Nicolas Werth: The opening of the Soviet archives has allowed us to maintain a certain freshness. We have distanced ourselves to a certain degree from the concept of totalitarianism, which, that having been said, necessarily implies a kind of comparison. Moreover, it is clear that the memory of a French communist is not the same as that of a Romanian or a Hungarian, not only because the French Communist Party never seized power in France, but also because you have to look into the nature of the French Communist Party and its dependency on Moscow. The opening of the archives has made it possible to realize the determining importance of the training in Russia of French Communist Party cadres. Hence this dependence is real and incontestable. But the question is: What is this communist party that in certain respects depends on Moscow and which simultaneously proclaims its particularity and its belonging to the French nation? We’re dealing with a party whose nature is hybrid, and its debt to Guesdism (1) and revolutionary syndicalism is as great as what it owes to the transfer of Bolshevik practice to France.

How do you explain the paradox of a French Communist Party that is tending toward a return to the Social-Democratic fold and which, simultaneously, is having a hard time going back on its most “totalitarian” (to pick up on a word that you’re using) impulses?

Romain Ducoulombier: The great historical error of the Thorez (general secretary 1930-1964) and Waldeck-Rochet (general secretary 1964-1972) generations was not to have understood that the interests of the French Communist Party were incompatible with those of the Sovier Union. An Italian-style development might have been possible, but the affair of the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, even though it was condemned in words by the French Communist Party leadership, settled the question. And when the communist party attempts to return to its deepest roots, it always finds Jacobinism (2) along the way.

Pierre Laurent: You speak of a hybrid party to the extent that the choice is only between a violent revolutionary path and a Social-Democratic path. But the path of French socialism is rooted in a tradition of transforming society very profoundly, a tradition which dates back at least to the French revolution and which is based on Marx and Engels’ brilliant anticipation of post-capitalism. From that point, Marx conceives the surpassing of the contradictions of the capitalist system. We define ourselves within that Marxist lineage. This tendency has nothing to do with a fake choice between totalitarianism and Social-Democracy: we define ourselves by an ambition to transform society, one which never, not even temporarily, puts the question of democracy in parentheses. I lead a party which, it seems to me, is participating in a new era of communism, and which re-connects with its founding ambitions in that era.

(1) Guesdism was the dominant political doctrine within French socialism until 1914. In terms of its political action, Guesdism was defined by three main elements: 1. rejection of reformism and participation in bourgeois governments; 2. rejection of participation in a revolution so long as the economic conditions for success did not exist (a position close to Russian Menshevism); 3. methodical use of the class struggle to prepare the revolution. [Translator’s note]

(2) Today Jacobinism means a doctrine that tends to organize political power in a very centralized and bureaucratic way, political power being exercised by a small technocratic elite. [Translator’s note]

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