My comments on François Furet’s book are sceptical.footnote1 It therefore seems just to note at the outset that there is much in Le passé d’une illusion which I admire, notably the brilliant and beautifully written first chapter on la passion révolutionnaire, and much with which I agree, having written about the same period from a very different point of view, though also, like Furet, ‘a newcomer to twentieth-century history’. In my view Le passé d’une illusion is in many respects unsatisfactory as history, but it is a work to be criticized because both it and its author must be taken seriously.
It may be simplest to begin with the two aspects of Furet’s argument which have aroused most interest: the comparison between fascism and communism, and the role of ‘anti-fascism’ in communist propaganda.
The first of these raises few problems, because Furet is far too good a historian, and especially a historian of ideas, to succumb to the temptation of ideological clichés; witness his discussion of ‘totalitarianism’. Consequently, while tempted to stress a supposed common ground between fascism and communism, even an ‘unacknowledged kinship’ or ‘antagonistic complicity’ (p. 230), and certainly the success of each in exploiting the existence of the other, his formulations are too qualified and oblique to lend themselves to agitational argument. In any case, as Furet notes, the theme is not new: ‘Comparison between the Soviet Union and the fascist regimes. . .was a current theme in the inter-war period’ (p. 193). The common element in both fascisms and bolshevism has, of course, long been observed, whether by men who admired both Mussolini/Hitler and Lenin/Stalin like Sorel and Bernard Shaw, or who condemned both equally as anti-liberal ‘dictatorship’ or ‘tyranny’ like Elie Halévy—who inspires some of Furet’s most interesting passages. Ideological affinities are harder to find, for though statements on the extreme Right for a non-democratic socialism or bolshevism can be found—Furet quotes several—no equivalent expressions of sympathy for, or acknowledgements of indebtedness to, fascism can be readily discovered on the communist side. The attempt to discover a common ground between the ideological traditions of Marxism and fascism—‘between socialism and anti-liberal and even anti-democrat thought’ (p. 198)—cannot succeed, given the nature of the ideological and political heritage of the Second International, of
The question of ‘anti-fascism’ which forms the core of Furet’s argument requires more discussion, though not much more. His basic argument is almost certainly correct. If international communism had continued to call essentially for something like a replay of the October Revolution (‘Les soviets partout’), it would have remained a relatively insignificant minority force in Europe, rather like the Trotskyite movements which continued to view the world in the Leninist revolutionary perspective after events in 1956 gave them some political scope. We may leave aside the question whether it would have had better chances in the Third World. The lesson of the 1920s was clear. With some exceptions—Germany, France, Finland, perhaps Czechoslovakia—communist parties were small, marginal and politically insignificant. The Great Depression benefited the extreme Right and not the Left, and destroyed the one European communist party which had carried the hopes of Moscow—the kpd. Conversely, as soon as the communist movement shifted to the strategy of ‘anti-fascism’, European communism began its ascent, which brought all the communist parties of the continent—except the unfortunate German one—to the highest point of their public support and political influence, and, in Eastern Europe, produced a number of regimes dominated by communist parties, some of which were based on home-grown revolutions (Yugoslavia, Albania) or—as the relatively free Czech elections demonstrated—on genuine mass support. For the first time communist parties rather than social-democratic parties could claim to be the main representatives of the national working class in France and Italy.
That this was due primarily to the Comintern’s shift from ‘class against class’ to anti-fascism seems clear. Yet Furet’s explanation of why the Western Left, and especially its intellectuals, accepted the communists as essentially anti-fascist, are curiously unreal, because they neglect the reality of the fascist threat which, between 1943 and 1941 forced liberal capitalism and communism into an alliance which neither side would have chosen, against an enemy who threatened both equally. Moreover, there was no other way to defeat this enemy. The communists gained prestige and influence for three main reasons. They became the most consistent champions of anti-fascist unity, having, until 1934, been its most stubborn opponents; they were, thanks to the nature of their movement, its most efficient proponents; and the ussr was essential to any alliance which hoped to defeat Hitler. The logic of this situation was so
The reality of aggression and the threat to democracy were patent in the 1930s. So was the fact that it came exclusively from the political Right, whose argument that they needed to preempt Marxist revolution Furet rightly rejects. Between 1919 and the end of World War ii no government was overthrown from the Left, and all anti-democratic regime changes, by coup, conquest or by other means, were moves to the Right. Furet is no doubt correct in arguing that not all the Right was fascist, and for that matter, that the differences between fascist movements and regimes were substantial. Communists no doubt benefited and continued to benefit from such confusions. Yet why should they, or non-communists, make fine distinctions between the ideologies of Franco, José Antonio and the Spanish church hierarchy, when the entire Nationalist enterprise regarded itself as a crusade against both 1789 and 1917 (not to mention Martin Luther and Voltaire), overthrew a democratically elected, legitimate government, asked for and received the armed assistance of Mussolini and Hitler, and when Franco actually wanted to join the war on Hitler’s side? The few public figures on the Right who were prepared to resist Hitler at all costs and without qualification, where highly untypical members of their species—Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill.footnote2 They were untypical even in their readiness to subordinate their consistent anti-communism to the operational need for an alliance with Stalin and communist resistance movements.
Under the cirumstances, it would have been bizarre to treat both fascist and communist forces as equally undesirable. If war was to break out between Germany and Russia, who would Americans prefer to win? When asked this question by a public opinion poll in early 1939, 83 per cent opted for Stalin and only 17 per cent for Hitler, even though us public opinion was as anti-communist then as now, was deeply suspicious of the ussr (which the usa had only recognized in 1933), and though the most distinguished group of left-wing intellectuals in the country were strongly and vocally anti-Stalinist. Hitler, it was obvious to them, constituted a danger for other countries—probably for the world; Stalin, however terrrible for his own people, was to be supported as an enemy of Hitler. The tendency to overlook the dark side of Stalinism was not due—except among many communists, fellow-travellers and the like—to the self-deluding abdication of critical reason, but to the rational assumption that my enemy’s enemy is best treated as an ally. Should the