Paul Anderson, review of Complications: communism and the dilemmas of democracy by Claude Lefort (Columbia University Press, £22.50), Tribune, 11 January 2008
Claude Lefort is one of the last survivors of the French intellectual left that dazzled even the Anglophone world for 30 years after the end of the second world war – a student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the 1940s, co-founder with Cornelius Castoriadis of the libertarian-socialist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, the subject of one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s most vehement polemics of the 1950s and, since the 1960s, the exponent sans pareil of a radical democratic critique of totalitarianism and bureaucratic liberalism.
This book is his response to a raft of liberal triumphalist accounts of the history of communism published in the late 1990s, in particular those by the great French historian Francois Furet (who died in 1997) and the American Sovietologist Martin Malia (who died in 2004), authors respectively of The Passing of an Illusion and The Soviet Tragedy. Although it is late to arrive in English – it was published in French eight years ago as La Complication – it is a welcome addition to the literature that deserves a wide readership.
Lefort’s disagreement with the liberal triumphalists is emphatically not that of those Stalinist nostalgics who think that the Furets and Malias exaggerate Soviet crimes. Nor has he anything in common with Trotskyists and other Leninists who assert that everything would have been fine had Stalin not won the battle for control of the Soviet party-state in the 1920s. His argument is that the impact of the Bolshevik revolution was disastrous from the start – and that it was much more profound and much more pernicious than even enthusiastic anti-communist liberals admit.
Western communists and fellow-travellers worshipped Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia not out of ignorance, Lefort argues, but in admiration of the efficacy of its elimination of supposed counter-revolutionaries and deviants. The friends of the Soviet Union in the west were not deluded innocents, as Furet’s book title suggests, but enthusiasts for totalitarianism.
Just as important, says Lefort, we must be wary of history written with the benefit of hindsight. Even in the late 1980s, hardly anyone thought that the Soviet Union was anything but a permanent fixture on the world stage. To write now of the inevitability of the demise of communism is an act of intellectual bad faith.
Complications is hard going at times, mainly because Lefort is expressing complex ideas and makes frequent excursions into his own intellectual and personal history. (One chapter is devoted to Hannah Arendt, another to the history of the French Communist Party after 1945.) There is also a problem, however, with Julian Bourg’s over-literal translation, particularly on tenses. The convention in English is to use the present tense when discussing contemporary work: here everything is in simple past, as in the French original.
All the same, this is a minor gripe – and Bourg’s introductory essay is a model of clarity. Anyone with any interest in understanding the rise and fall of communism in the 20th century will find this book immensely stimulating.