For the love of Stalin. The Anglo-Saxon world has been a bystander to the century's great passion: communism. What was its appeal to Continental intellectuals? And can we be sure that it won't return?

The Passing of an Illusion

Francois Furet <em>University of Chicago Press</em>, <em>561pp, £27.95<

The collapse of communism has illustrated once again the perennial difference between Anglo-Saxon and Continental intellectual culture. In England and America the main impact has been on the empirical disciplines. The principles of international relations have had to be rewritten. "Sovietology" has ceased to exist. The richest harvest has been in history, where the disappearance of the Soviet legacy has enabled writers to take a more distanced perspective on the events of 1917. But conspicuously missing has been any attempt to summarise the significance of communism as an idea.

Communism has generally been viewed in the Anglo-Saxon world as a grim social reality; its historiosophical pretensions have been dismissed as charlatanism. Therefore its vanishing has touched observers only superficially; it has not led them to modify their deepest convictions. Our robust good sense with regard to communism is also our limitation. Having never felt its appeal ourselves, we are unable to understand its appeal to others. We have been bystanders to the central passion of this century. Anglo-Saxon philosophical reflection on the fall of communism has yet to rise above the shallow triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama.

The case is very different on the Continent, where communism, among a large section of the intelligentsia, held the status of a religious faith. The collapse of this faith has prompted a strenuous effort to understand its emotional and intellectual sources. How could a brutal despotism have exercised such sway over the imagination of liberal Europe? How could minds as sophisticated as Sartre's or Lukacs' have swallowed the crude lies of the Comintern? These are questions that exercised the late Francois Furet. Late in life, the eminent historian of the French revolution turned his attention to communism, or rather to the appeal of communism; this book is an attempt to penetrate what Keynes described as "its subtle, its almost irresistible attraction". Like all the best works on communism, it carries the authority of a confession: Furet himself was a member of the French Communist Party from 1944 to 1956. That his book has only this year been published in English (four years after its appearance in France and after its translation into 13 other languages) is an indication of the almost total irrelevance of these questions in the English-speaking world.

It is a bad habit of many writers - particularly in this country - to ascribe the appeal of communism to certain defects of character among Slavs, Jews and intellectuals generally. Religiosity, masochism and a love of extremes are held responsible for what would otherwise appear totally inexplicable. One of the merits of Furet's book is its avoidance of this crude demonology.

Communism is not the bastard offspring of European history; it is a legitimate heir. The passion that fuels it - hatred of the bourgeoisie - is inextricable from the development of democracy itself. The bourgeois is hated because he is necessarily a hypocrite. His title to rule derives from the revolutionary promise of liberty, equality and fraternity, but his effective power rests on the possession of capital. He is hostage to a promise he cannot fulfil. It is in this margin - the margin between what the bourgeois promises and what he delivers - that communism takes root. There is a continuum between the principles of 1789 and those of 1917. The second great European revolution redeemed the broken pledges of the first, bringing the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity to their natural fruition.

The equation of 1917 and 1789 gave the Russian revolution an irresistible authority in the eyes of the French left. But it was pure scholasticism; the two revolutions had nothing in common beyond the name. Historicism - the tendency to see history as the unfolding of universal reason - endowed the equation with a spurious plausibility. The Russian proletariat was the vanguard of humanity, pursuing the path abandoned by the French bourgeoisie in 1848. So powerful was this urge to discern meaning in history that it resisted all empirical refutation. The "progressive" character of the Russian revolution became the central article of the new creed; to question it was to invite excommunication. Bereft of the eternal God, the French left was forced to seek deliverance through history.

Communism's claim to represent universal reason was immeasurably strengthened by the appearance of its classic adversary - fascism. The two ideologies in many ways mirrored each other: both rejected the "bourgeois individualism" of the pre-war era. But whereas communism presented itself as the famous Aufhebung - or dialectical transcendence - of individualism, fascism appeared as its straightforward negation, an atavistic reversion to the ties of blood and soil. To an intelligentsia steeped in Hegel, communism represented a progression to the universal, fascism a regression to the particular. This formula gave communism a tremendous tactical advantage over its rival: it enabled it to coerce the entire spectrum of "progressive" opinion into an anti-fascist alliance, the terms of which it dictated. Even a mind as lucid as Keynes's could propose, in 1938, that Britain, France and the Soviet Union form a "league of freedom" against the fascist powers. The crimes of the Bolsheviks could be justified on the grounds that they served a progressive cause, whereas those of the fascists were without excuse.

Even today, few people accept that communism and fascism share an equality of guilt. The Holocaust has been etched into popular consciousness, whereas Stalin's crimes remain obscure. A lingering sense that communism was "a noble idea" serves to lighten its record. But even if it was a noble idea, what does this prove? Surely it only adds to the offence: Stalin compounded the crime of mass murder with the additional crime of hypocrisy. His wickedness was more subtle, more artistic, than the straightforward brutality of Hitler. Evil is always most insidious when it masquerades as the highest good. Lucifer was the fairest of the angels.

Furet's is very much the view from the Left Bank. The influences that propelled the Paris intelligentsia towards Moscow were more or less absent in England. The democratic movement in England never had the open margin of its French counterpart; the influence of Locke and Mill checked the slide from formal to material equality. Unschooled in Hegelian metaphysics and jealous of their liberties, English thinkers were as inclined to equate communism and fascism as to contrast them. The two regimes were subsumed under the wider category of "totalitarianism" - an object of horror to Orwell; of admiration to Wells and Shaw. This permutation of loyalties would have seemed bizarre in France, where the opposition between left and right was more important than that between liberal and totalitarian.

In France, communism was seen as the extension of democracy; in England it appealed more to a perverted aristocratic ethos. Communism was the new freemasonry, a cosmopolitan, elite fellowship of illuminati. This attitude found its natural expression in the activities of the Cambridge spy ring. The ability of communism to appeal to such vastly different constituencies testifies to its chimerical quality; it was a blank screen on to which any fantasy could be projected. Underlying the various rationalisations, one discerns the elemental magnetism of power. Communists of all persuasion shared one basic desire - the desire, as Orwell put it, to "kiss Stalin's arse".

Furet, in contrast to Marx himself, does not account for communism's appeal in terms of "class struggle". This is surely right. Communism was always a predominantly bourgeois passion; the working class, when left to its own devices, gravitates towards trade unionism. Hatred of the bourgeoisie is ultimately the bourgeoisie's hatred of itself; the proletariat is too busy emulating the bourgeoisie to hate it. The contradiction out of which communism arose was not the contradiction between classes; it was the contradiction between democracy and capitalism.

This latter contradiction, unlike the former, is still with us. The logic of citizenship and the logic of capital still tug in opposite directions, however much Tony Blair may deny it. "Democracy," concludes Furet, "creates the need for a world beyond the bourgeoisie and beyond capital, a world in which a genuine human community can flourish." As long as the democratic ideal is taken seriously, communism remains a temptation. In its Marxist- Leninist form it is as dead as the dodo, but who knows under what slogans it will march in the future?

Edward Skidelsky's reviews will appear monthly in the "NS"

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet