"Letting Uncle Joe Off Easy"

By Charles Taylor


Salon Staff
July 19, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

In the somewhat abstract discussion of who is worse -- Hitler or Stalin -- there is one point that Charles Taylor fails to point out, fails to make. Stalin, as well as Stalinism, is not merely the direct cause of millions of deaths under his direct rule, but he is also, and indisputably, the grandfather of mass murder in regimes from North Korea to China, Cambodia and beyond. Every death attributable to party cadres and their lust for power over all aspects of life in these Leninist/Stalinist societies may be laid at the feet of not only Stalin but also Lenin, Trotsky and all who believe that terror is a legitimate tool for social, political and economic coercion.

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There are today over a hundred million who have been sacrificed to the gods of Leninism. Even as I write, North Korea, using tools invented by Lenin and perfected by Stalin, starves its people -- both physically and intellectually --into bowing before this god.

In the end, the issue should not be who is worse -- for either Hitler or Stalin is ultimately unacceptable. The discussion should be how to prevent mass murder as a political, ethnic, economic, religious, ideological tool -- a discussion I think both right and left could benefit from.

-- Graydon Forrer

I applaud Charles Taylor for airing Amis' objection to the acceptability of being fascinated by communism and Lenin. Amis' distinction that Nazism didn't destroy civil society but bolshevism did is worthy of discussion but rarely aired. I've always thought that while Hitler was evil and became progressively more detached from reality, Stalin (and Pol Pot leaps to mind) was evil and stark raving mad for years. Maybe the question of who was worse should not be asked, but I think it is safe to say that the damage of Stalin has been, and continues to be, much harder to clean up.

-- Denise Havard

The answer to the question of which was worse, Hitler or Stalin, and why, is quite clear and easy. Hitler and Nazism were far worse than Stalinism and its atrocities, whatever the respective numbers of victims. The reason is that the core ideology of Nazism was racism, which defined various groups (though especially Jews, who were persecuted and then killed as a race, in Nazi terms) as fundamentally subhuman and therefore deserving of annihilation.

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Stalinism, by contrast, was a perversion of the European Enlightenment, which at its core proclaimed the fundamental equality of all humanity. The perversion and the crimes associated with all forms of communism were produced by the notion that anything and everything is justified in the pursuit of this fundamentally humanist ideal. This, however, cannot be morally equivalent to the systematic denial of and attempt to eradicate Enlightenment humanism.

Only those who cannot understand the uniqueness of racism and its effort to strip away the basic humanity of specific groups of human beings can fail to see this essential distinction. But that, of course, is hardly surprising coming from conservative white guys.

-- James Lewis

Why, asks Charles Taylor's review of Martin Amis' "Koba the Dread," has anti-communism never been the moral equivalent of anti-fascism?

Here's an attempt at an answer from one who never sympathized with the USSR or its admirers: Fascism never stood for anything except the unlimited right of the strong to take what they liked and do whatever they wanted to anyone too weak to resist them. Communism claimed to be in favor of what Amis' father called the Just City and Orwell called "a world of free and equal human beings." It therefore gets the benefit of its good intentions, and it is fortunate in the swinishness of some of its enemies.

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The ideal of the Just City is deeply embedded in Western culture, rooted in Isaiah and Revelations. It may be inherently totalitarian because it postulates the direct rule of God over humankind outside of time and history, what Revelations calls "a new Heaven and a new Earth." Certainly, every effort by flawed human beings to realize it through their own efforts, from the millenarian uprisings of the Middle Ages to Pol Pot, ends the same way. But that never kills the wish dream for a world where everyone lives in perfect peace and harmony with everyone else -- except for those deservedly burning in hell.

Building New Jerusalem is not the only way to make the world a somewhat better place than we found it. But as an anti-communist, one necessarily finds oneself in the company not only of those who abhor the totalitarian method, but also of those unsavory defenders of the status quo (Nixon, for one) who care only to hold what they have and who oppose any effort to reduce injustice and inequality by any means. Lenin's revolution was a great gift to such people, who are delighted to assert that any effort at reform must lead straight to the gulag and the killing field.

-- James M. Hirschhorn

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A colleague of mine recently observed that when it comes to statistics, "bad numbers chase out good." Amis' book, and your review of it, serve as a case in point. As historians left and right know, the figure of 20 million "victims of Stalinism" is hotly debated and has not (as your reviewer implies) been supported by the latest and most systematic archival research. Those who support the 20-million figure have recently had to attack the Soviet archival collections themselves as liars -- not an implausible thesis, but a step that obviously moves our search for truth into waters that will not support speaking of "the 20 million" with easy certainty. I refer your readers to the works of J. Arch Getty, a historian disdained by the right but one who has the good grace to systematically note sources and acknowledge that his numbers (in the single-digit millions) are one set on a range.

Why is it important to have exact numbers? I myself don't know, though I try to keep current.

What I do know is that anyone who uses such numbers as a stick with which to bash enemies of any persuasion, but is not, himself, conversant with the complexities of the truth and the full range of what we know about it: that person is exactly the sort of moralizing enthusiast Uncle Joe would have cozied up to just fine.

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What our public needs is a historian who is willing to write a book about Stalin's time without recourse to the sensationalist tactic of blinding us with numbers. Isn't it odd, in fact, that critics of Marxism and "the left" should make such a fetish of (arguably) false figures, when one of the lessons of the collapse of historical materialism is that humanity and its historical experience cannot be meaningfully, or humanely, reduced to digits?

-- John Randolph

Christopher Hitchens surely can defend himself. And I myself take great exception to some of his views. But -- assuming Charles Taylor's review is an accurate representation -- I find a monumental self-contradiction in Amis' simultaneous embrace of Orwell for providing the most accurate description of communism and his criticism of Hitchens. Even a fairly casual review of Christopher Hitchens' commentaries over the years reveals a constant and often explicit reverence for Orwell. Indeed, Hitchens has been attacked repeatedly by Alexander Cockburn precisely because of that reverence (based on Cockburn's belief that some personal correspondence ostensibly betrayed Orwell as a monumental hypocrite or worse). If Amis' hero is Orwell, and yet he is so oblivious to the readily observable fact that Orwell is heroic to Hitchens as well, one is obliged to question Amis' ability to accurately tell any story.

And, indeed, Amis' entire premise -- that a once-upon-a-time belief that communism could be a means to a better society constitutes a de facto and immutable endorsement of terror -- is not really different, in terms of intellectual foundation, than claiming the celebration of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence is by default an enthusiastic endorsement of slavery. It appears it is Amis who deconstructs and perverts meaning by employing the same sort of self-contradictory paradox as Orwellian "Newspeak" -- to misrepresent the philosophical views of others. Pretty ironic.

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-- Brian Zick


Salon Staff

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