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made available to historians, this book is an extraordinary achievement even at the level of narrative presentation: historical documents (the minutes of the cc sessions, party decrees, private and official letters) are introduced and accompanied by a substantial commentary which displays a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
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
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
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
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: