Monday, August 16, 2004

Slavoj Zizek on the Difference Between Communism and National Socialism

My tendency as a conservative is to see moral equivalence between Communism and National Socialism. This equivalentism is reflected in my occasionally calling Communists ‘Commies.’ This offends some, but if National Socialists may be called ‘Nazis,’ then fair play would demand that Communists may be called ‘Commies.’ Note also that if one calls National Socialists ‘Nazis,’ one obscures the fact that they are socialists – which is precisely something they have in common with Communists. Both systems are totalitarian and tend to dissolve the individual into the social whole. And both systems confuse this dissolution with salvation. Genuine salvation, however, is salvation of the individual in his unique individuality, not salvation from the individual by dissolution into the collective.

Slavoj Zizek, who is most decidely on the Left, denies the moral equivalence of the two movements. In On Belief (Routledge 2001, p. 39), we read:

...the Communist project was one of common brotherhood and welfare, while the Nazi project was one of domination. So when Heidegger alluded to the ‘inner greatness’ of Nazism betrayed by the Nazi ideological peddlers, he attributed to Nazism something that effectively holds only for Communism: Communism has an ‘inner greatness,’ an explosive liberatory potential, while Nazism was perverted through and through, in its very notion: it is simply ridiculous to conceive of the Holocaust as a kind of tragic perversion of the noble Nazi project – its project WAS the holocaust.

The obvious response to this is that there is no difference that makes a moral difference between a movement that calls for genocide –- the extermination of Jews and non-Aryans generally –- and a movement that calls for ‘classicide,’ the extermination of an entire class of people, the bourgeoisie. Extermination is extermination: you are equally dead if you are murdered for belonging to an ethnic group or to a socioeconomic class. Contra Zizek, the Communist project was not one of “common brotherhood” but of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” – a notion that expresses a desire for domination just as surely as Nazi racism does. It is certainly clear that in practice Communism did not promote “common brotherhood” – unless you think that brotherhood is compatible with the murder of 100 million people. (This is the standard figure given for the number of those murdered by Commies in the 20th century. See The Black Book of Communism.) But my main point is that, regardless of practice, Communist theory does not aim at “common brotherhood,” but at the extermination of all who oppose Communist ideas. There is nothing liberal – in the classical sense –about Communism: they will not tolerate a diversity of views, but send you to a gulag for ‘re-education’ – or liquidation.

Zizek is aware of something like this objection and addresses it in an endnote which I reproduce verbatim:
So what about the ‘revisionist’ argument according to which the Nazi elimination of the racial enemy was just the repetitive displacement on the racial axis of the Soviet Communist elimination of the class enemy? Even if true, the dimension of displacement is crucial, not just a secondary negligible feature: it stands for the shift from the SOCIAL struggle, the admission of the inherently antagonistic character of social life, to the extermination of the NATURALIZED enemy which, from outside, penetrates and threatens the social organism.” (On Belief, p.154, n.34)

Slicing through the obfuscatory Continental verbiage, we may take Zizek to be saying that the moral difference between Commies and Nazis is that the former see the fundamental struggle as a class struggle within society, while the latter see it as a struggle between society and an external natural threat. But this does nothing to show the moral superiority of Commies to Nazis; all it does is reiterate a well-known non-moral difference between the two. Explaining how the two totalitarian systems differ does nothing to show that one is morally superior to the other.

The plain truth of the matter is that both totalitarian systems are morally reprehensible. That they are reprehensible in different ways and by different methods is entirely consistent with their moral equivalence. Zizek is committing the elementary mistake of inferring a normative difference from a non-normative one. But our Continental brethren are not known for their clarity of mind.

It is difficult to get lefties to appreciate the moral equivalence of the two totalitarian movements because there is a tendency to think that the Commies had good intentions, while the Nazis did not. But this is false: both had good intentions. Both wanted to build a better world by eliminating the evil elements that made progress impossible. Both thought they had located the root of evil, and that the eradication of this root would usher in a perfect world. It is just that they located the root of evil in different places. Nazis really believed that Judentum ist Verbrechertum, as one of their slogans had it, that Jewry is criminality. They saw the extermination of Jews and other Untermenschen as an awful, but necessary, task on the road to a better world. Similarly with the Commie extermination of class enemies.