A paradoxical consequence of the end of the Cold War in the peaceful implosion of ‘real socialism’ was a widespread restoration of confidence in the original ideological currency of the Free World. ‘Totalitarianism’ became the de facto gold standard of commentary on the Communist experience. Unsurprisingly, it was pervasive in Eastern Europe and the ex-ussr, where no less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev (sometime General-Secretary of the cpsu, subsequently hawker for Pizza Hut) had recourse to it. Further West, it and its analogues (e.g. ‘ideocracy’) supplied the master-key of such signal interventions as Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy (1994), François Furet’s Passing of an Illusion (1995), or Stéphane Courtois et al’s Black Book of Communism (1997).
As was approvingly noted in an imposing Histoire culturelle de la France published shortly afterwards, the efforts of Furet and his fellow authors sealed a Parisian consensus that had in fact been forged two decades earlier. From a post-lapsarian vantage-point, French intellectual history after the Liberation could now be encapsulated as follows. Reared on the native revolutionary myths of 1789, intimidated by the prestige of Stalin’s Russia and its local instrument, bewitched by the pretensions of Marxism-Leninism, most intellectuals had blinded themselves to the reality of Communism. The anti-Stalinist revelations and revolutions of 1956 had failed to rouse them from their ‘philotyrannical’ (Mark Lilla’s coinage) slumber, serving only to prime a quest for alternative—utterly illusory—forms of Marxism and socialism. If May 68 had discredited the Gaullo-Communist compact, it had also fuelled the totalitarian temptations held out by Mao’s China or other varieties of Third Worldism. Worse, it had set in train the Union of the Left, ideologically dominated by the pcf, whose Common Programme embodied a ‘social-statism’ liable, if unchecked, to install a version of Honecker’s regime in the Hexagon.
Thus stood matters in June 1974, when the first volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago appeared in Paris. Unable to ignore so unimpeachable a source, Dreyfus and Dostoevsky in one, non-Communist intellectuals underwent a Damascene conversion. The scales fell from their eyes, exposing them not only to the true enormity of ‘real socialism’, but to the realization that the worm was in the bud. Not Stalin or Lenin, but Marx—and, in a flight backwards, Hegel and Rousseau (possibly Plato)—was the progenitor of the univers concentrationnaire. Contra Sartre, Aron, Camus and Castoriadis had been right all along. Accordingly, it was time to embrace the Anglo-American century. A decade later, Marxism was marginalized, the pcf neutered, and the Socialist government cured of dirigiste follies. French clocks, Aron could note with some satisfaction in his 1983 Mémoires, no longer ran differently: they were in the process of being synchronized with Western Standard Time. Five years later, and an issue of Le Débat dedicated to ideas in France from 1953–87 read like a veritable intellectual Congress of the Victors in periodical format.
No parody where none intended. The mainstream account of the trente honteuses of the French intelligentsia from 1944–74 offered by such authorities as Jean-Pierre Rioux or Michel Winock, not to mention Anglo-American inquisitors of Gallic heresies like Tony Judt and Mark Lilla, is precisely a moral fable disguised—thinly—as intellectual history. Michael Scott Christofferson’s sharp and scholarly French Intellectuals Against the Left is devoted to dismantling it systematically as description and evaluation, by focusing on the ‘anti-totalitarian moment’ in both senses (conjuncture and significance) of the 1970s. It is an almost unqualified success.
Christofferson’s opening move is to situate the phenomenon in comparative historical and geographical perspective. ‘Denaturalizing’ the concept of totalitarianism, he briefly sketches its history, from origins in self-ascription to Mussolini’s Italy, via pre-war extension to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, to Cold War consolidation for the purposes of characterizing Communism and equating it with Nazism, as the inevitable outcome of any attempt ‘to make history conform to a utopian ideology’. Even as Friedrich and Brzezinski’s Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy was being issued, however, Khrushchevite de-Stalinization was casting doubt on the validity of the notion (just as Gorbachevite liberalization would problematize its re-edition during the Second Cold War), inducing ad hoc adjustments that lacked cogency for the ‘revisionism’ which rose to prominence from the late 1950s. Persuaded of the case made by such historians of the Soviet Union as Moshe Lewin, Christofferson himself rightly rejects the concept on two main grounds: ‘First, it misinterprets relations between the party-state and society in supposedly totalitarian regimes. Second . . . [its] explicit comparison between the Soviet and Nazi regimes insists on their essential sameness, when in fact the differences between the regimes outweigh their similarities.’
In France, where Halévy’s Age of Tyrannies (1936) had foreshadowed Cold War usage of the concept, Aron’s cautious investment in it in the 1950s yielded a poor return beyond the ranks of the local chapter of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Mostly oblivious to earlier controversies, French intellectuals resorted en masse to the concept for the ussr in particular, and revolutionary politics in general, at a time—the 1970s—when many of their Western counterparts had already abandoned it. Why? Christofferson’s careful comparison between the American, West German, Italian and French cases indicates that the key to the concept’s varying fortunes consists in the particular balance of external and internal determinants. Across the Channel, domestic context—not international situation—explains its fate, which
turned largely on the relationship between left-wing intellectuals and the pcf. Unlike the pci, the pcf failed to establish distance between itself and the Soviet Union or pursue a moderate politics that might have sheltered it from the charge of totalitarianism. And whereas in West Germany and the United States, ‘New Left’ politics undermined the legitimacy of the concept of totalitarianism, in France it prepared the ground for anti-totalitarianism by turning left-wing intellectuals against the pcf after 1956.