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Book Review: The Passing of an Illusion

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The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century
by François Furet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); 596 pages; $35.

Even now, though it is less than 10 years since the end of the Soviet Union, it is hard to imagine that in the 20th century, millions of people believed in and dedicated their lives to the triumph of communism. For those who accepted the Marxian promise of a better, more beautiful future, there was only one shining light in the world: the Soviet Union, the first experiment in socialism and the planned economy. In Soviet Russia, a new man and a new society were being built.

Why did so many people turn their backs on the Western ideal of democratic, limited government and a market economy based on private ownership of the means of production? This is a central theme of French historian François Furet in his recently translated work, The Passing of an Illusion, originally published in France in 1995. Furet died in 1997.

The emerging “bourgeois” civilization of the 19th century was hated by both those who looked backward to the precapitalist society of status and privilege and the radical utopians inspired by the French Revolution. What both the European conservative “right” and the revolutionary “left” detested in capitalist society were its individualism, its cosmopolitanism, and its network of voluntary market relationships.

The new, free society ended the bondage of traditional community in which the individual’s station in life was determined by the accident of birth. Each individual was now at liberty, to a far greater extent than in the past, to find and make his own place in society. At the same time, the principle of liberty made all men free citizens of the world, regardless of nationality, religion, or social background. And in the market economy, the leading indicator of success and reward was the extent to which each best served his fellow men in the increasingly global system of division of labor.

What both the “right” and the “left” wanted was a return to a collective sense of identity and belonging, which would include shared values and common goals that would connect and direct all the members of society. This higher conception of “community” made the “money nexus” of the market economy appear as an alienating force that reduced men and their relationships to some hollow and dehumanizing ledger book of expenditures and receipts.

Furet insightfully diagnoses, therefore, the rise of both communism and fascism out of the disaster of World War I. Both forms of collectivism revolted against classical liberalism, the market economy, and democratic government. Both called for a revolutionary transformation of man and society. Both insisted that the individual had to be subservient to the state. Both demanded a planned economy rather than the “anarchy” of the market. Both argued that society’s remaking needed political leadership to which the masses must be made to conform. Both, therefore, called for dictatorship. Both offered people the illusion of recreating the world on the basis of a transcendent understanding of the nature of things.

Both Mussolini and Lenin had been revolutionary socialists before the First World War. But in the aftermath of the Great War what they offered as universalistic ideals became different. Lenin, remaining loyal to his Marxian roots, insisted on the universal truth of international class conflict. Mussolini, hearing a different voice, declared the universal truth to be the conflict among nations, with individuals of all classes within the nation bound together with a common interest against competing nation states.

Furet argues that fascism’s appeal to a sense of national identity has often been found to be the stronger attraction in our time. But communism has been the greater danger. Italian fascism and German National Socialism could unify all Italians and Germans, but they could never appeal to other nations or peoples whose place in a fascist or National Socialist world would be subservience and enslavement to the superior nation or master race. Communism, on the other hand, offered a community and equality of all men, regardless of nationality. Thus communism’s appeal was global and ecumenical in nature. It could appeal to the “oppressed” of all nations.

The story that Furet tells about the period before the Second World War is partly one of how the most sophisticated intellectuals in the 1930s were sometimes duped but most often were self-deluded in believing that the Soviet Union was the land of the future and that Comrade Stalin was the wisest, kindest, most caring leader of the world proletarian movement, to whom all allegiance was owed.

Only the Soviet Union could lead the world out of the poverty and chaos of capitalist degeneration. Only the Soviet Union could serve as the rallying point around which an anti-fascist movement might be formed to stop Hitler, that agent of the most violent and last stage of capitalist development (as Soviet propaganda claimed).

The first earthquake to shake the foundations of support for the Soviet Union in the West, Furet says, was the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which resulted in the joint dismembership of Poland by the two totalitarian powers and enabled Hitler’s armies to conquer western Europe. But Comrade Stalin was once more placed on the pedestal of being the “best friend” of every downtrodden people when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. As a result of the war, Stalin and the U.S.S.R. shined brightly as the liberators of the victims of fascism.

And for most of the postwar period, until Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union maintained its image of being revolutionary and progressive. Only in 1956, says Furet, did there occur the second earthquake, from which he says the intellectual appeal of the Soviet Union never fully recovered: Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in which he “revealed” and denounced the “crimes of Stalin” and his “cult of personality.” The strong aftershock in 1956 came when the Soviets brutally crushed the Hungarian revolution.

Who are the heroes in Furet’s account of the rise and fall of communism as an idea and a movement in the 20th century? They are basically those on the political left who resisted or turned against the Soviet form of socialism — those who believed in and defended democracy as well as “social justice.”

But the nature of the Soviet Union, the dangers from communism and fascism as totalitarian systems, and the bankruptcy of socialist planning had been clearly explained by the classical liberals of the period between the two world wars — political economists such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. Hayek, Lionel Robbins, and William E. Rappard, and Western correspondents such as William Henry Chamberlin, Eugene Lyons, and Malcolm Muggeridge, who had reported from Moscow in the 1930s. But the political left had been deaf to them.

The most important and lasting arguments concerning both the danger from collectivism and the possibilities for a free society were made by these classical liberals and others like them. But Furet’s failure to even mention them demonstrates how deaf many on the political left remain, even after the end of the worker’s paradise.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).