The Totalitarian Temptation

Liberalism's Enemies, Then and Now

The parallels between communism and fascism have often been noted, fueling endless debates over whether the movements were fundamentally similar or different. The Devil in History, a new book by the political scientist Vladimir Tismaneanu, presents a genuinely fresh perspective on this topic, drawing enduring lessons from the last century's horrifying experiments with totalitarianism.

Instead of writing a historical treatise, Tismaneanu set out to produce "a political-philosophical interpretation of how maximalist utopian aspirations can lead to the nightmares of Soviet and Nazi camps epitomized by Kolyma and Auschwitz." Prompted by the author's personal intellectual journey, the book is an extended essay that examines the evolving interpretations of communism and fascism. 

Tismaneanu touches on so many questions that he cannot possibly provide all the answers. But in doing so, he reinvigorates important debates about not only past ideologies but also present and future ones. The animus toward modern liberalism that he finds at the root of both earlier totalitarian move-ments has not disappeared, and the liberal world today should remain alert to its contemporary manifestations.


Many intellectuals who spent much of their lives behind the Iron Curtain ended up believing that communism and fascism were basically alike. After beginning his postwar career as a member of Poland's Communist Party, for example, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski emigrated to the West in 1968. He eventually became convinced that all movements proclaiming utopian visions, including communism, were incorrigibly evil. Kolakowski's rationale was straight-forward: the problem with such ideologies was that they grounded their legitimacy in claims to own the definition of "truth," and as Kolakowski explained, "If you oppose such a state or a system, you are an enemy of truth." Under communism, those enemies were primarily defined by class; under fascism, they were usually defined by race. But in both cases, the upshot was the same: the state must ruthlessly eliminate its ideological opponents, along with anyone deemed sympathetic to them in either thought or deed. The infinite elasticity of the categorization of enemies accounted for the mass murders under both systems.

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