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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 169-173

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Books in Review

Explaining Communism's Appeal

Carl Gershman

The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. By Fran├žois Furet. Translated by Deborah Furet. University of Chicago Press, 1999. 596 pp.

Though the fall of the Soviet Union occurred less than a decade ago, it already seems like an event from a remote and entirely different historical epoch. Soviet communism didn't just collapse. It vanished as if it had been a bad dream, not a powerful totalitarian system that terrorized its subject peoples and menaced its geopolitical rivals. The apparition-like quality of Soviet communism was actually a distinctive aspect of its essential character. It was only as an idea--an ideological illusion--that communism was able both to conceal its brutality and to command the loyalty of intellectuals throughout the world. The idea died with the system it had affirmed. Yet how it was able to live as long as it did and to win the fervent belief of so many people remains perhaps the greatest enigma of the twentieth century.

It is this enigma that Fran├žois Furet attempted to explain in The Passing of an Illusion, which was published in France two years before his untimely death in 1997 and has now been splendidly translated into English by his widow, Deborah Furet. There have been many books describing the history of Soviet communism and the system of terror it created. There have also been books recounting the scandalous phenom-enon of the "fellow-travelers"--Western intellectuals who became apologists for communist tyranny. But this is the first comprehensive attempt to explain why such a large part of the Western intelligentsia [End Page 169] flocked to the banner of a totalitarian system that rivaled and, in some respects, even exceeded Nazism in its cynicism, cruelty, and criminality. As such, Furet's last work is a monumental achievement that will shine a light for generations to come on one of the darkest and most mysterious chapters in human history.

According to Furet's analysis, the procommunist ideological passion of the Western intelligentsia can be traced to three interrelated factors. The first is hatred of the bourgeoisie, which Furet calls "the oldest, the most constant, and the most powerful" (p. 4) of all the passions spawned by the arrival of modern democracy in the late eighteenth century. This hatred derived from the contradiction at the heart of the new commercial civilization in Europe between the doctrine of universal rights and the capitalist system with its division of labor. The bourgeoisie, as both the bearer of the doctrine of equal rights and the beneficiary of capitalist exploitation, became the villain of democratic politics in the new era. The Bolsheviks' suppression of capitalism was thus welcomed in progressive European circles as an essentially democratic act.

The second factor is World War I, whose protracted bloodletting in the name of nationalism "reworked the soil of European politics" (p. 37), making violence commonplace and driving people back to universalism. Whereas the outbreak of the war signified, according to Furet, "the victory of nation over class," the October Revolution represented "the revenge of class over nation" (p. 21). The desire for such revenge gave the October Revolution broad appeal, as did the revulsion against the war, which added "an obsession with remorse to the power of hope" (p. 75).

Still, Furet asks, how can we explain "why Bolshevism took root in broad strata of Western opinion?" Here he turns to the third and most decisive factor--the linkage of the October Revolution to the intellectual and political legacy of the French Revolution, which was the starting point for democracy in Europe. The French Revolution had introduced "the most potent political image in modern democracy--the revolutionary idea," only to leave it painfully unrealized. The October Revolution, many believed, would at last fulfill the promise of 1789. The fact that it had occurred in Russia, a backward country, only added to its universal appeal, since this meant that "no territory, no country, no matter how distant...


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