A Reactionary Lament for Communism
First of all, my Twitter account has been restored. Thank you to everyone who complained about the ban: it seemed to have actually made a big difference. They also stopped scrubbing searches for links to my Substack. Go figure!
Compact has published a piece by Helen Andrews entitled “What Soviet Nostalgia Gets Right.” This essay is a reaction to the reaction to Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany: Apparently, lots of people are upset about Hoyer’s book and take it to be a defense of the D.D.R. Andrews uses this as an occasion to consider the phenomenon of ostalgie, the nostalgia felt by some who lived in the East for the Communist era. Andrews is on the Right—I would submit on the Far Right—so this elegy for the fall of Soviet system might seem odd. But it’s actually not all that surprising.
First off, Compact itself exists to peddle this sort of hybridization of Left and Right themes, which I have elsewhere called an “unholy alliance.” (As a quick aside, in a recent piece, Slavoj Zizek, who sadly is a contributor to Compact, used this very term in a recent essay, writing, “We live in an era of unholy alliances, a combination of ideological elements which violate the standard opposition of Left and Right.”)
As I point out in that piece, the attempt to find such a Left-Right synthesis is an old and dishonorable tradition. And Corey Robin pointed out on Twitter that conservative admiration for the energy and dedication of the Left dates back to the French Revolution. But specificially, the reactionary Right’s view of Communism as something more noble than the decadent liberal democratic West is not new either. In the interwar period, Ernst Jünger, one of the principal figures of the Conservative Revolution movement, expressed interest in the Soviet experiment:
Jünger was also sympathetic to the German communists of the later 1920s, since he found in them a 'positive, militant will to power.'..He saw Italian Fascism and the Soviet Five Year Plan as representing the essence of the new order. The Soviet Union appeared to him to be harder and more determined than the Nazis. He viewed Bolshevism not from the standpoint of Marxist ideology, but as a total mobilization in which technology, more than social struggle, became the 'opium of the masses.'. Jünger thus sought in Nazism, National Bolshevism, Italian Fascism and Russian Bolshevism the order which would become the bearer of the myth of the workers' state, based on nihilism, technology, the aesthetics of violence, the Gestalt of the worker-warrior and total mobilization.1
He was not alone. The sociologist Arnold Gehlen, who had been a supporter of the Nazi regime, later in life came to an admiration of the Soviet Union. In France, Alain de Benoist, the far-right philosopher behind the nouvelle droite movement, wrote in the early 1980s of a qualified preference for the East over the West:
The choice must be the camp that, in practice, is objectively the least favorable toward universalism, toward egalitarianism, and toward cosmopolitanism. . . . The main enemy for us will thus be bourgeois liberalism and the American Western Atlantic, for which European social democracy is only one of the most dangerous stand-ins.2
In that essay, he famously remarked that “wearing the cap of a Red army soldier” seemed less dreadful to him than “living on a diet of Hamburgers in Brooklyn.” (As someone who did that for a decent portion of his life, let me tell you—it’s really not that bad.)
In his Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk remarked on how late-stage Communist regimes, with their tight control on education and culture were objectively conservative: “Socialist countries put the drilling of values into practice with breathtaking radicalness…Viewed structurally, the Party dictatorships in the East constitute the paradise of Western conservatism.” So, we can see the reactionary lament for Communism has a certain perverse logic.
Andrews’s ostalgie is a little different than the old reactionaries. While reactionaries once admired the mobilization and military regimentation of the Soviet project, she seems to lament not so much the revolutionary era as the stagnation period, the loss of the normality and grayness. For Andrews, It was a “normal totalitarian society” that gave people a sense of order and regularity lacking today in the West, with its crime and sex and drugs. She puts aside as the terrors and surveillance states as aberrations or insignificant details: "Apart from anomalous intervals intervals like Stalin's terror, [the USSR] was a basically normal society” or "Even pervasive surveillance, excruciating for independent thinkers, was an annoyance at most for the average person." Uh huh. At one point, some of the old awe of Eastern industrial and military muscle does slip out, in Andrews’s worry about the loss of American social virtue: “…an America without manufacturing, without martial prowess, and without moral values might turn out to be very uncompetitive indeed, even if it takes years for the collapse to manifest.”
Andrews seems to never have read about an authoritarian regime she didn’t like. She writes with evident regret and longing about the end of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. (De Benoist, whom I suspect Andrews is quite a fan of, was also a defender of those regimes.) Part of this is just the backwards-facing utopianism of the Far Right: the mythological ideal society is always in the past. These societies represent Order, Totality, Integrity, as opposed to the chaos and decadence of the present. But related to that, there is also the curiosity and interest about any alternative to liberal democracy, no matter the ideological source. This is at the root of Compact’s entire project, as well.
I joked yesterday on Twitter that, “Compact magazine is so funny, all their editors are like "ah we have a spicy little new idea for you, it's a mixture of nationalism...and get this...socialism.” Its founder Sohrab Ahmari quote tweeted me and said, “This is our most programmatic statement on nationalism. Read it and tell me if you think John is intellectually honest in calling us nationalists.” He linked to a piece he wrote on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the return of liberal nationalism in the West.
The editors of this magazine love to play these disingenuous little games. Ahmari was a prominent participant in the National Conservative conference. The mission statement of the magazine reads: “Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right.” In reference to his liberal nationalism piece, Ahmari tweeted, “I’m highly sympathetic to several nationalist movements worldwide. But I’m emphatically not a ‘Natcon.” (He appears to have deleted this.) His break with the National Conservatives seems to be mostly predicated on their support for Ukraine—before that he was into nationalism. (Perhaps Putin’s regime is more attractive to Ahmari?) But as a Roman Catholic, he also dreams of an imperial super-state.
Nationalism, Catholic integralism, socialism…What is going on with all this ideological promiscuity? On the one hand, it might just signify a lack of clarity or intellectual seriousness and a sort of grasping around for an —ism that could constitute an interesting and unique political identity. That may certainly be part of it. However, there is a thread that runs through all these peregrinations. Ahmari is interested in all these things in so far as they represent rejections of liberalism and democracy. But, in the case that they can be reconciled or even make an uneasy peace with liberal democracy, they are to be quickly rejected or modified again.
Sohrab is fine with nationalism in so far as it represents a possible hierarchical, anti-egalitarian model of authoritarian statehood, but not with nationalism in so far as it represents, say, the patriotic defense of some actual concrete nation under attack. This form of nationalism that hates actual, historic nations but longs for some imagined ideal is also part of an old story. It is a Vichy nationalism, a nationalism that welcomes defeat, an anti-Dreyfusard nationalism of pessimism and decadence. Can the Catholic Integralist Ahmari—or is he no longer calling himself one of those?—really deny the influence of Maurras?
I can’t really tell if the editors of Compact are intentionally recapitulating the discourse of the 19th and 20th century Far Right or it is just a structural effect of their politics and positioning in the cultural field. But this shifting from signifier to signifier of “Order,” this restless movement from Catholic medievalism to nationalism to admiration for the power of the Reds, this desire for strong collectivity and community without egalitarianism, looks very familiar and pretty suspect to anyone who knows their history.
David Ohana, The 'Anti-Intellectual' Intellectuals as Political Mythmakers” in Sternhell, The Intellectual Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, 1875-1945. 102-103
in “French Anti-Americanism” in Winock, Nationalism, Anti-Semitism and Fascism in France. 51