Saturday, March 12, 2005

The non-equivalence of Nazism and Communism

We all know that many liberals (and their neocon successors) in the West have long posited an equivalence between Communism and Nazism (or, sometimes, fascism), often under the rubric "totalitarianism." The ideological utility of this claim aside, everyone knows the two are not equivalent, as Slavoj Zizek explains.

A personal anecdote may help illustrates the point. Five years ago, in the heyday of the dotcom era, I was invited to attend a sales kickoff for a software company, that happened to be taking place in Miami Beach. Like most of the parties of the tech fin de siecle, the event centered on debaunched and absurdly catered parties, with overpaid salespeople running around town from expensive meals to raunchy clubs. About the third night I was there (I remember the night well, it was April 14, 2000, the day the stock market crashed; for memories, click here), we all were invited to a restaurant called Moscow.

What was amazing about this place was neither the food nor the scene, but the decor, which featured all sorts of Communist kitsch: hammer and sickle mosaics on the floor; replicas of "socialist realist" posters on the walls; and of course the inevitable busts of Lenin and Stalin. And this isn't Berkeley or Paris; this is Miami Beach, which thanks to the Cuban emigres' hatred of Castro was and remains the epicenter ongoing post-Soviet anti-Communist fervor. Here I am, in Miami Beach, paying $12 a drink at a restaurant that unashamedly styles itself around an ironical appropriation Soviet Communist imagery.

Two thoughts occured to me at the time. The first was my marvel at Capitalism's ability to assimilate anything to promote its own ends, including even movements explicitly dedicated to its eradication. The second thought I had, which took a little longer for me to arrive at, was that the very fact that this restaurant could exist proved definitively that the wingjob claim of a moral equivalence between Communism and Nazism was simple nonsense, and nothing more. Why? Well, compare this restaurant's ability to pass without a blink in what was arguably the most anti-Communist place on the planet, to the likely survival of a Nazi-themed restaurant in, say, Manhattan or Tel Aviv. The latter is simply inconceivable.

There's a good and simple reason for this, of course. What Nazism stood for, its political ideal if you will, was and remains fundamentally abhorent. Who today would defend a political agenda whose central values are Aryan racial purity, militarism, and a queer hypermasculinity? By contrast, as Eric Hobsbawn points out, the ideals that underpinned Communism--equality, comradeship, material progress, and the banishment of superstition--remain not just defensible, but arguably better than the ideals of any current political project, be it the religious fundamentalism of American conservatives, the Islamism of Arab radicals, the EU's worship of bureaucracy, or the neoliberals' "devil may take the hindmost" celebrations of the market. In short, the values Communism invoked remain worthy of respect, even if no one on earth wishes for a return of the regimes which tried to implement these ideals by the most illiberal means imaginable.

Indeed, part of the reason why so many brilliant and courageous people (like Hobsbawm, for example) defended Communism, even in its Soviet guise, long after retrospect shows they should have given up, is that they continued to believe in the professed values of Communism. Their faith in the ideals of Communism blinded them to the atrocious reality of Communism, and even where they recognized that atrocious reality, that feared what it would mean for the world to turn its back on a system that professed such values -- would the values themselves come to be besmirched?

In the United States and in the Middle East (though not in Europe), the social democratic baby was indeed thrown out with the Communist bathwater. And the disastrous results are on ready display from Lawrence, Kansas, to Lahore, Pakistan. The discrediting of socialist ideals did not lead to a universal embrace of liberal democracy, as Fukuyama and others hoped. The result, rather, was the emergence of other opposition movements, at least as illiberal as Communism, and in many respects more distasteful than the Communist alternative.

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