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You Cannot Reform a Totalitarian (You’ve Got to Defeat Him)

January 8th, 2012 - 11:51 am

Back when I was even younger, and living in Rome, the main topic of conversation was of course Communism.  Italy had the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union, and it was forever on the cusp of becoming the biggest party in Italy, thus forming the government, thus taking over.  (Marginal comment for those who aren’t up on 20th century Italian political history:  it never happened.)

Although the deep thinkers at the European and American universities were eager for the West to lose its “inordinate fear of Communism” (a phrase conceived by then-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and pronounced by Jimmy Carter in an unfortunate speech at Notre Dame early in his first and last term), most of the Italians I knew were very much concerned (they would have to endure it, while the American intellectuals could stay safely in the States and comment on it), and while many intellectuals dreamed of a reformed “Communism with a human face,” everyone in Italy knew that the model for a Communist Italy was the USSR itself.

Back then — we’re talking mid-to-late seventies — the hot topic was “Eurocommunism.”  An amazing number of highbrows were convinced that Western Communists, such as the Italians, were capable of being democratic, pro-NATO, and even anti-Soviet.  The unfortunate Zbig was one of them, as were almost all the “scholars” at Harvard gathered around Stanley Hoffmann.  Those of us who knew the Italian Communists first hand (local party HQ were a few doors down from us, and we knew them well) were harder to enchant, and when Washington Post owner and one of her star journalists, James Hoagland, came to Rome to praise Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer, we were appalled.

A good friend, the brilliant philosopher (and ex-Communist) Lucio Colletti, used to put the essence of the matter very well:  “Communism can’t be reformed.  Either you’ve got it or you don’t.  If the Soviet Union actually reforms, then I will confess to failure to understand the whole phenomenon.”

I agreed, we made some bets with those who thought Communism could be democratized, and that there could be a reliable NATO government in the clutches of the Italian Communist Party. Years later,  I got plenty of free food when the Soviet Empire collapsed, and the Italian Communist Party crawled onto history’s dust heap.

Lucio, who had spent many years inside the Party, understood that a totalitarian system cannot be changed.  Either you’ve got it, or you don’t; you can’t humanize it, because its very essence is the elimination of freedom and the total domination of all those who come under its sway.  And so it was.  Communism was defeated, not reformed.

Which brings us to today’s sermon, containing three main themes:

First, those who believe that today’s most virulent totalitarian movement — radical Islam — can be reformed and democratized understand neither the Reformation nor Islamism.

Second, totalitarianism is what binds together the radical Muslims and the radical Leftists.  Those who purport to be surprised at the marriage of the two groups need a refresher course in twentieth-century mass movements.

Third, the fight for freedom is both domestic and global, and we’re going to have to defeat our totalitarian enemies from Islamist Iran to radical Leftist Nicaragua, and our own would-be oppressors of free Americans.  It’s a single, global, war.

The Illusion of Reforming Radical Islam

The whole point of radical Islam is the domination or destruction of all those who don’t accept the Islamists’ dictates.  It’s not, as some suggest, a demand that non-Muslims bow to Islamic supremacy;  it’s also directed against those Muslims who believe in a different version of the holy writ (indeed, apostates are generally hated far more intensely than non-believers).  There are variations in “sharia” and the radical Islamists won’t tolerate any departure from their version, any more than Stalin tolerated Trotsky or Bukharin or Lovestone, or French Catholics tolerated the Huguenots, or the Lutherans put up with Anabaptists, or Hitler made room for the SA.

Lots of those who talk about an “Islamic Reformation” seemingly forget (if they ever knew) that the Reformation was not a debating club, but one of the bloodiest moments in Euiropean history.  Although it’s important to demolish the evil visions aimed against us and our free society, you can’t convert fanatics by “winning hearts and minds,” or showing them “the errors of their way.” Utopians unhesitatingly crush or kill those who get in the way of fulfilling the vision.  They have to be defeated.

Religious and Secular Religions

I don’t think Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece on totalitarianism is much read nowadays, which is a pity.  She understood the dynamics of totalitarianism, saw that antisemitism was common to its several varieties, and didn’t permit herself to get hypnotized by one or another ideological theme in the fascist and Communist movements and states.  Thus, the Hitler-Stalin pact made sense, as did the later war between them.

There were some surprising forms of cooperation between fascists and Communists, some of which were seemingly impossible according to the neat division of the world into Left and  Right. My friend Renzo De Felice,  the author of a (very long) biography of Mussolini, came across a fascinating collection of documents that had been sent to the fascist intelligence service by its Soviet counterpart.  They were coded reports on the locations and activities of Italian Communists living in the Soviet Union.  And De Felice also found the code, which was clearly provided to the Italian Duce by the Soviets.

The totalitarians had a lot in common, as they do today.  If Stalin could actively help Mussolini, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find Islamic fanatics working hand-in-mailed-glove with Leftist fanatics.  Don’t make the mistake of believing that they are in cahoots simply because they have a common enemy.  More important is that they share a common vision of total control over the peoples they come to dominate, both their own and others.  There is a fascinating history of Islamist leaders being “educated” and trained by Communists (Khomeini, for example, studied with Soviet Communists at one point), and while there is a long tradition of Muslim antisemitism, a good deal of contemporary Islamist Jew hatred was delivered to them by the Fuhrer’s minions both during and after the Third Reich.  Now the evil is exported from the Middle East to Latin America, where Leftist tyrants like Chavez trot out some of the worst of Ahmadinejad’s antisemitism.

The Fight for Freedom

Totalitarians can’t be reformed.  You can’t “win” by debating, and so in the war against totalitarian countries like Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela, you have to defeat them politically if possible and militarily if there is no other way.  It’s dialectical, as Comrade Marx might say.  Political defeat weakens them on the battlefield, and military defeat makes their ideology much less attractive to would-be recruits, as seen by Al Qaeda’s shriveling after their defeat by American military forces in Iraq, and by the generally improved security in Afghanistan (when you rarely read about fighting in Afghanistan, as at the present, it’s usually because we’re doing well).

The fight against the totalitarians is not just America vs. the totalitarian network;  it’s very much at the heart of American politics right now.  Mark Levin — may the hair on his toes never fall out — has tirelessly and energetically fought against the would-be tyrannical statists who want to dictate our actions in every niche and cranny of life.  When Marco Rubio warns that the Obama administration threatens to turn us into a nation of deadbeats, that’s what he’s talking about.  They’re certainly not the only ones.  Right here at PJ Media we’re blessed with the likes of Simon, Solway, Fernandez, Radosh, Klavan, Hanson et. al., all fighting hard against the totalitarians.

This, too, is dialectical.  The other day, Fouad Ajami wrote a fine piece in the Wall Street Journal about Syria, and he bitterly remarked that “deep down, the Obama administration seems to believe that Assad’s tyranny is preferable to the opposition.”

Just so.  They prefer the tyrants because that’s what they aspire to themselves.  They hate the messiness of our fractious society and they don’t think much of our ability to make good decisions for ourselves, so they just tell us what to do and defy us to beat them.  Just like the foreign tyrants do.

That’s no doubt the “deep down” reason why Obama worked so hard — indeed is still secretly working hard — to get his version of the Hitler/Stalin pact with Iran.

Somebody ought to remind Obama how that great triumph of totalitarian diplomacy worked out for the two of them.

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