As I was leaving LT Days last year, a guy came up to me and got on my case about the shirt I was wearing, which, against the field of a giant red star, featured Proudhon‘s slogan, “Property is theft” in 12 different languages. I don’t remember precisely what the fellow said—but it was critical and sort of along the lines of “how dare you wear a shirt like that here. Don’t you know what those people did to our people?”
Then, over New Year’s in Chicago, my friend Saulius was wearing a black shirt with a hammer and sickle in red upon it. Afterwards, I was asked about my opinion regarding his shirt. I was put in a position to be like the man who hassled me at LT Days. I was to say something like, yes, it’s totally tasteless for Saulius to wear that shirt, considering what “those people” did to “my people.”
I, of course, didn’t. But I didn’t like the reasons I gave. It’s not that they were weak, but they didn’t properly engage in the actual horrors of Stalinism. I maintain, as I did, that much of what we take for granted today was won by people fighting and organizing under the red star, but that’s still evading the terror, etc., of Stalin’s regime. But there’s something else that’s also important, coming out of the shirt, which is the rehabilitation of the USSR brand coupled with its abstraction to the level of taboo—such that the hammer and sickle begins to take a place interchangeably with the swastika, as diametric symbols of totalitarianism, opposing poles of evil and extremism.
The problem is, though, that that tabooing is not only wrong and misguided, it’s an invitation to political danger. In asserting that Saulius’s walking around a bunch of diaspora Lithuanians with a shirt featuring a hammer and sickle is equivalent to, say, dressing as Hitler and going to a synagogue, the asserter is engaging in a fascist project of recuperation, in which communists are slandered at the cost of covertly supporting a new fascism.
Below, I flesh this out with the help of an article by Žižek.
First, a bit about the brand recuperation. I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet that, 20 years ago, it was nearly impossible to get anything with “СССР” on it. I remember feeling a frisson of transgression when, in around 1988, I bought a (then rare) replica pin of the KGB. After the USSR disintegrated, the market obviously flooded with relics and collectibles—military gear, etc. And a replica market grew out of that that still lines Friedrichstraße.
But what seems to be new is the movement from replicas into new objects unimagined by the Party. These new items copy the iconography, but they lack the historical specificity of the replicas. Hence the t-shirts you can buy today that just feature four Cyrillic letters and a hammer and sickle. Kappa has even included a “СССР” Eroi sweatshirt to their line. The Soviet Union was not particularly great at soccer, nor was Kappa (I’m willing to bet) ever their kit manufacturer. So where’s the consumer base to buy these products coming from? People too young to “remember” the horrors of the Cold War? Members of the New International?
So while some sort of market for “new” Soviet loot has arisen, Žižek points out that,
In response to a call for the prohibition of the public display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, a group of conservative members of the European Parliament, mostly from ex-Communist countries, demanded that the same apply to Communist symbols: not only the hammer and sickle, but even the red star.
If any such legislative steps are considered against the swastika used as a Nazi symbol, the communist symbols should be treated similarly…It is well-known and well-documented that communist dictatorships are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent civilians – no fewer than the Nazi regime.
Note, please, the use of the language of equivalence. The communist dictatorships were, in effect, “as bad” as the Nazis, and, hence, their iconography should be equally vilified. The MEPs spell it out, in fact: “The same moral code should apply to communism, the other extremist ideology of the last century.”
This is troubling, Žižek argues, since it ignores the fact that the horrors of communism and of nazism come from importantly different sources. Stalinists executed those who believed differently and went through the show of trying them beforehand. Nazis executed based on constitution, on biological makeup, without any effort of justifying it using Enlightenment principles. Under “Stalin, the ruling ideology presupposed a space in which the leader and his subjects could meet as servants of Historical Reason,” Žižek writes, suggesting that an element of equality remained theoretically possible. This was not true for the Nazis, and is shown by the fact that,
We do not find in Nazism any equivalent to the dissident Communists who risked their lives fighting what they perceived as the ‘bureaucratic deformation’ of socialism in the USSR and its empire: there was no one in Nazi Germany who advocated ‘Nazism with a human face’. Herein lies the flaw (and the bias) of all attempts, such as that of the conservative historian Ernst Nolte, to adopt a neutral position – i.e. to ask why we don’t apply the same standards to the Communists as we apply to the Nazis.
This position reduces Nazism to a reaction to, and repetition of, practices already found in Bolshevism – terror, concentration camps, the struggle to the death against political enemies – so that the ‘original sin’ is that of Communism.
If we try to balance the two ideologies, in other words, fascism comes out as the winner, because it’s a reaction—a defensive position against a threat. I’ve heard and made this argument myself when, as a youth, I “rationalised” Nazi collaboration among Lithuanians by saying that they were simply lining up with the anti-communists. But fascists aren’t anti-communists. They are fascists. There’s a very, very important distinction there.
What the fascists did, Žižek explains, is change the fundamental social antagonism from that of class (the communist position) to one of race. Racial conflict, however, is invented, whereas class conflict is “absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field.” By instilling a racial conflict, fascists manage to obscure the reality of class conflict—overlaying a new conflict to keep the attention away from the only conflict that matters, that of the rich against the poor. It’s the same effect that nationalism produces: we identify with each other on nationalist terms, so even though my boss may be exploiting the hell out of me, he’s a paisan, so I have to cut him some slack. Today, the distinction has taken on a “civlizationist” or pseudo-religious turn. You may make 100x as much as I do, but, like me, you believe in liberal capitalism and are against terrorism, so while you may be robbing me of my right to health care or ruining my social services by not paying taxes, as long as we hold hands at memorials for the September 11th dead, it’s all ok.
This then returns to the language of the man who approached me at LT Days: what “those people” did to “our people.” “Those people” were communists, but it ignores the fact that there were Lithuanian communists. In fact, Lithuanian communists were as much parts of the nascent nationalist and independence movements in Lithuania as the lionized, more conservative heroes who get the love in the diaspora. By referring to them as “those people” and making a necessary distinction of form between “communist” and “Lithuanian,” “communist” becomes a racialised term, a form of ethnic, not ideological, identification. And when you start hating people based on their ethnic makeup, then you’re just being a fascist.
The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat.
After World War II, Europe rallied in anti-fascism. The “nie wieder” is attached to Fascist atrocities based on racial antagonism. In positing that the Stalinist atrocities are of the same tenor, it equates racial antagonism with class antagonism, suggesting both are equally wrong. And, as such, it throws Europe’s doors wide open for exploiting capitalists of all stripes to march in and destroy the continent. Politicians like Landsbergis are cynically trading on the sorrows of their constituents to enable the continued economic exploitation of those same constituents. It’s shameful.