Finally, in the deluge of the conservative-liberal ‘Black Books’ on Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’, a work which not only meets the highest standards of historical research, but also enables us to grasp the unique social dynamics that culminated in the great purges of the 1930s: J. Arch Getty’s and Oleg V. Naumov’s The Road to Terror.footnote1 Based on the archives of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, which were only recently made available to historians, this book is an extraordinary achievement even at the level of narrative presentation: historical documents (the minutes of the cc sessions, party decrees, private and official letters) are introduced and accompanied by a substantial commentary which displays a theoretical stringency rarely met amongst historians (for example, references to Foucault, Bourdieu, and modern linguistics in order to explain the functioning of the ritual of self-accusation in the show trials). Furthermore, the picture that emerges of this period from the late 1920s—the failure of the collectivization of agriculture—to the late 1930s—the sudden halt to the ‘irrational’ terror—is much more complex than the image of Stalin ruthlessly realizing his demonic project of total domination: the great purges are put in their context, rendered visible as the result of the way the top nomenklatura (mis)perceived their situation. In the eyes of Stalin and his immediate entourage, Bolshevik rule was unstable, out of control, permanently threatened by centrifugal forces—far more than a gratuitous sadistic display of power, Stalinist terror was an implicit admission of the inability to run a country through the ‘normal’ chains of administrative command. In order to properly measure the impact of The Road to Terror, one should start with the paradox of the revolutionary sacrifice.

Once we enter the Stalinist universe of the ridiculous sublime, the ultimate form of sacrifice is no longer the tragic fate of the fighter dedicated to the Cause, but a much more radical self-sacrifice. Let me elucidate it apropos of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, when there were no public trials, no ritualized public self-accusations comparable to Stalinist show trials: people simply disappeared in the night, they were dragged away, and nobody dared to speak or ask about it.footnote2 The key to this feature is that, till late 1976, the very existence of the Communist Party and its leadership structure was treated as the greatest secret: the Party functioned somewhat like Wagner’s Lohengrin, all-powerful as long as it remained the anonymous Angka (Organization), as long as its name (Communist Party) was not publicly pronounced and acknowledged. Only in 1977 did the régime acknowledge that the Party existed, and Pol Pot was presented as its leader (‘Brother No. 1’). So, till 1977, we had the paradox of a power edifice in which the public structure and its obscene hidden double overlap: instead of the usual public-symbolic power structure sustained by the obscene invisible network of apparatuses, we have the public power structure which directly treats itself as an anonymous, secret, hidden body. As such, the Khmer Rouge régime was a kind of political equivalent to the famous advertising slogan for the utterly evil femme fatale character played by Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl’s neo-noir film The Last Seduction: ‘Most people have a dark side...she had nothing else.’ In the same way, while most of the political régimes have a dark side of obscene secret rituals and apparatuses, the Khmer Rouge régime had nothing else...This is probably ‘totalitarianism’ at its unsurpassed purest—how did this take place?

The key act of the Stalinist communist party is the official consecration of its History—no wonder that the Stalinist book was the infamous History of vkp(b)—only at this point does the party symbolically start to exist. However, the Communist Party of Cambodia had to remain ‘illegal’ as long as the key problem of its history was not solved: when did its founding congress take place? In 1951, the cp of Cambodia was established as part of the Vietnamdominated Indochinese cp; in 1960, the ‘autonomous’ Cambodian cp was formed. How to make a choice here? Untill the mid-1970s, the Khmer Rouge, although already fiercely autonomous and nationalist, still needed the support of Vietnam; so their official historian Keo Meas made an almost Freudian compromise-solution, proclaiming as the official foundation date of the Party 30 September 1951—the year of the founding of the Cambodian wing of the Indochinese cp and the day of the 1960 congress of the autonomous Cambodian cp. (History, of course, is here treated as a pure domain of meaning without regard for facts: the chosen date reflected the present political balance of forces, not historical accuracy.) In 1976, however, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was strong enough to break from Vietnamese tutelage—what better way to signal this than to change the date of the Party’s foundation, that is, to rewrite history and to acknowledge as the true date the date of the constitution of the autonomous Cambodian cp, 30 September 1960?

However, it is now that the true Stalinist deadlock emerges: how, then, to explain the embarrassing fact that, till now, the cp publicly cited another date as its founding moment? To publicly acknowledge that the previous date was a pragmatic, politically opportune manoeuvre was, of course, unthinkable—so, logically, the only solution was to discover a plot. No wonder, then, that Keo Meas was arrested and tortured to confess—in an act of supreme irony, his confession was dated 30 September 1976—that he had proposed the compromise date in order to disguise the existence of an underground, parallel Cambodian Communist Party controlled by Vietnam and destined to subvert from within the true, authentic, pc of Cambodia...Is this not a perfect example of the properly paranoid redoubling—the Party has to remain underground, a secret organization, and can only appear publicly when it rejects/externalizes this underground existence in its uncanny double, in another parallel secret party? Now we can also understand the logic of the highest communist sacrifice: by confessing to his treason, Keo Meas enabled the Party to propose a consistent history of its origins, taking upon himself the guilt for the past opportunistic compromises. These compromises were necessary at that time: so the true hero is the one who makes the necessary compromise, knowing that, in the later development, this compromise will be denounced as treason and he will be personally liquidated—this is the highest service one can do to the Party.

In this paranoid universe, the notion of the ‘symptom’ (in the sense of an ambiguous sign pointing towards a hidden content) is universalized: in the Stalinist discourse, a ‘symptom’ was not only the sign of some (ideological) affliction or deviation from the correct party line, but is also the sign of a correct orientation; in this sense, it was possible to speak of ‘healthy symptoms’, as in the following criticism of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony by the arch-Stalinist composer Isaac Dunayevsky: ‘The brilliant mastery of the Fifth Symphony...does not preclude the fact that it does not by any means display all the healthy symptoms for the development of Soviet symphonic music.’footnote3 Why, then, use the term ‘symptom’? Because, precisely, one can never be sure if a positive feature really is what it pretends to be: what if someone just feigns to faithfully follow the party line in order to conceal his true counter-revolutionary attitude? A similar paradox is discernible already in the Christian superego dialectic of the law and its transgression (sin): this dialectic does not reside only in the fact that the law itself generates its own transgression, that it stimulates the desire for its own violation; our obedience to the law itself is not ‘natural’, spontaneous, but alwaysalready mediated by the (repression of the) desire to transgress the law. When we obey the law, we do it as part of a desperate strategy to fight against our desire to transgress it, so the more rigorously we obey the law, the more we bear witness to the fact that, deep in ourselves, we feel the pressure of the desire to indulge in sin. The superego’s feeling of guilt is therefore right: the more we obey the law, the more we are guilty, because this obedience effectively is a defence against our sinful desire, and, in Christianity, the desire (intention) to sin is equal to the act itself—if you simply covet your neighbour’s wife, you already commit adultery. This Christian superego attitude is perhaps best rendered by T.S. Eliot’s line from his ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, ‘the highest form of treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason’—even when you do the right thing, you do it in order to counteract, and thus conceal, the basic vileness of your true nature.footnote4

Perhaps a reference to Nicolas Malebranche allows us to throw some further light on this procedure. In the standard version of modernity, ethical experience is constrained to the domain of ‘subjective values’ as opposed to ‘objective facts’. While endorsing this modern line of separation between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’, between ‘values’ and ‘facts’, Malebranche transposed it within the very ethical domain, as the split between ‘subjective’ Virtue and ‘objective’ Grace—I can be ‘subjectively’ virtuous, but this in no way guarantees my ‘objective’ salvation in the eyes of God; the distribution of Grace which decides my salvation depends on totally ‘objective’ laws, strictly comparable to the laws of material Nature. Do we not encounter another version of this same objectivization in the Stalinist show trial? I can be subjectively honest, but if I am not touched by the Grace of the insight into the necessity of communism, all my ethical integrity will make me no more than an honest petty-bourgeois humanitarian opposed to the communist cause, and, in spite of my subjective honesty, I will remain forever ‘objectively guilty’. These paradoxes cannot be dismissed as the simple machinations of the ‘totalitarian’ power—they harbour a genuine tragic dimension overlooked by the standard liberal diatribes against ‘totalitarianism.’

How, then, is this horrifying position subjectivized? As Jacques Lacan indicated, the lack of tragedy proper in the modern condition renders this condition even more horrifying: the fact is that, in spite of all the horrors of the Gulag and the Holocaust, from capitalism onwards there are no longer tragedies proper—the victims in concentration camps or the victims of the Stalinist show trials were not in a properly tragic predicament, their situation was not without comic or at least ridiculous aspects, and, for that reason, are all the more horrifying—there is a horror so deep that it can no longer be ‘sublimated’ into tragic dignity, and is, for that reason, approachable only through an eerie imitation/doubling of the parody itself. We have perhaps the exemplary case of this obscene comic nature of the horror beyond tragedy in Stalinist discourse. The Kafkaesque quality of the eerie laughter that erupted among the public during Bukharin’s last speech in front of the Central Committee on 23 February 1937 hinges on the radical discord between the speaker’s utter seriousness—he is talking about his possible suicide, and why he will not commit it, since it could hurt the party, but will rather go on with the hunger strike till his death—and the reaction of the Central Committee members: