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12 May, 2015

The “Normal Life” Argument

We have to go further in the study of routinized totalitarianism to understand what is at stake in “decommunization” in Central and Eastern Europe

Among the criticisms raised by the “decommunization bills” passed by the Verkhovna Rada in April, there is an interesting argument worth reflecting upon. It says that the soviet era cannot be reduced to the crimes of the soviet regime, that it had positive aspects or, at least, that it allowed millions of people to lead a normal life, to be happy, to go to school, have a job, etc. The argument is flawed but has a partial truth which makes it plausible. Let’s unfold the thing. 

There were indeed, marriages and divorces, ordinary crimes, fair trials (there must have been some!), scientific discoveries made, artistic masterpieces created, joy and sorrow experienced, as in any normal society. They left recollections and traces one cannot mistake for the misdeeds of the regime. In the academic discussion, some scholars argue that communist societies were complex, that one should not reduce them to ideocracy, to the power of the Party. There would be something inaccurate and misleading in the very concept of totalitarianism: first, it mistakes the party-state for the society as a whole, and therefore ratifies the self-image built by the regime, that is a unanimous society, without conflicts, merging with the power that leads and controls it. The totalitarianism theory ignores then that despite all the efforts of the “organs”, there was an independent civil society, which imposed its own agenda and dynamics to a reluctant ideology. Second, this theory ignores history and time: soviet rule lasted for 74 years and included very different phases. After Stalin’s death, the Thaw relaxed the vice, liberty or at least normality appeared to some extent. Contradicting the view that totalitarianism cannot amend itself, there were economic and cultural changes, even under Brezhnev (one of the foremost pro-Putin lobbyist in France, Jacques Sapir, is a fan of Alexei Kosygin), even more under Gorbachev. From an individual point of view, one can say that honest people lived happily, had a decent life, were stirred by Gagarin’s achievement, by the victories of the Moscow Spartak (not to mention the Kyiv Dynamo). There were members of the nomenklatura, and they don’t understand the global bashing of the soviet legacy. One should respect their feelings.

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This is flawed but very persuasive, both at the academic level (complexity etc.) and at the common level of discussion (the normal happiness). It looks sound because long lasting changes everything. By becoming a long-term routinized regime, “socialism in one country” did not amount to the end of totalitarianism, but it created a special unheard of system, different from “normal” totalitarianism, if I may say so.

To put it briefly, the secret of soviet totalitarianism, is its survival by withdrawal of its revolutionary dimension. Meanwhile fascist and Nazi totalitarianism were revolutionary from beginning to the end. Communism managed to stabilize, to rationalize itself so to speak, by shifting from world revolution to the world communist system. This makes communism a bewildering political experience. The power of the party was omnipresent but softened. Nepotism and cynicism replaced frenzied politization and revolutionary faith, so that the board between party-state and civil society, between oppressed or corrupted sectors of society, and the growing sectors of more or less autonomous activity, went blurred. Did the hormonal manipulations of female Olympic swimmers affect the whole practice of sports in GDR? Did the mandatory study of Marxism-Leninism prevented universities to produce good engineers and good physicians? One cannot answer either “yes” or “no” period. Daily life under “socialism” entailed small cowardice, small corruption, small fear, which can be easily forgotten, downplayed or even idealised. They were intertwined in the honourable or glorious features of soviet life, as for instance the lies and silences of the myth of the Great Patriotic War are intertwined in the genuine heroic deeds and sacrifices of soviet population and army during the war.

At this point, the obvious analogy between totalitarianisms may be misleading. The Nazi type, apocalyptic and brief, does not suffice to understand the communist type, routinized and never ending.

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Everybody knows that Mussolini dewatered the Pontine Marshes and that Hitler equipped Germany with a remarkable highway network, but this does not affect much the judgement of history on their regime. On the other hand, the least “achievement of socialism”, be it the building of vacation villages or the soviet supremacy concerning great pianists (Richter, Gilels… one born in Zhytomyr, the other in Odesa, both Ukrainian cities) seems able to mitigate the failures and crimes of the communist regime. Such a binary accounting leads nowhere (or to the idea of a “globally positive assessment”, as used to say Georges Marchais, Secretary General of the French Communist Party in the 1970s). We have to go further in the study of routinized totalitarianism to understand what is at stake in “decommunization” in Central and Eastern Europe. Treating as separate facts political oppression on the one hand, and daily life and positive achievements on the other, is not the right way of understanding what it is about. The pockets of daily normal life, the admirable achievements, notably in arts and science, are not a quantity to put in balance with the quantity of oppression and corruption, because oppression and corruption were diffused and infiltrated in the normal life. Some domains, such as press, university and literature, were more affected than others, but none escaped from the totalitarian routine. This is the meaning of the third term coining the Maidan: revolution of freedom, of dignity, and of truth.

I am not a Ukrainian citizen and my purpose is not to urge the President to sign or not to sign the four bills of April. There may be concerns regarding freedom of speech although I do not detect them until now. Some great scholars, in Ukraine and abroad, like David Marples or John-Paul Himka, did detect them; others did not - the discussion is legitimate. My point is to stress the specific dimension of communist ideology and experience and the long-lasting global lie surrounding and protecting them (the ban on comparing Nazi and Soviet regimes is central to this global lie). This calls for specific understanding categories and specific policies of liberation, which should match the European standards of free speech, but are nevertheless specific.

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