Princeton Professor Avishai Margalit’s new book was reviewed by John Gray in the latest NY Review under the title “Communists and Nazis: Just as Evil?” (Contact me for a copy since it is behind a subscriber’s wall.) When I read it, I dashed off a note to the professor calling him stupid and hypocritical. To my surprise, he wrote back saying that it was unfair to say such things without reading the book. Here was my follow-up:
Dr. Margalit, I want to take the trouble to explain why I found the ideas of your new book “On Compromise and Rotten Compromises” so objectionable even though I am relying solely on John Gray’s review in the NY Review. Ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to books on moral philosophy but Gray’s title “Communists and Nazis: Just as Evil?” was enough to make me read the review and follow up with an angry note to you. Frankly, I was surprised that you took the trouble to reply to me since I was only blowing off steam. My cranky emails to authority figures like President Obama or to you, the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, are more in line with Saul Bellow’s Herzog who as you might know devoted much of his time writing to public figures not expecting a reply. I guess that in the age of email, it is easier to connect in a way that was once considered more of a form of poetic apostrophe—as in “Twinkle, twinkle, Princeton Professor, how I wonder what you are?”
Now that I am 65 years old, you’d think that I would have gotten used to anti-Communist screeds, especially in a publication like the NY Review whose editors still appear to be making amends for publishing an article by Tom Hayden in the 1960s with a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the cover. They cannot let a month go by without publishing one of these boilerplate articles explaining to the world how Evil Communism was. You’d think that the USA was the next Nepal from these frequent warnings.
Anyhow, turning to Gray’s review, he takes up your analysis of two treaties, one between Britain and Nazi Germany; the other between Britain and Stalin’s Russia after the Nazi invasion. According to Gray, you find the first agreement a “rotten compromise” because it was a pact with radical evil. But the one with Stalin was okay: “Churchill was right, not because Stalin’s worst was not up to Hitler’s worse-than-worst, but because Hitler’s evil was radical evil, undermining morality itself.”
Not that Stalin was any angel. Gray quotes a passage from your book that strikes me as being in sympathy with some of the recent “revisionist” historiography in Germany that finds Hitler to be a mere piker compared to the Soviet tyrant:
….The politically caused famine of 1932–1933 alone brought about the death of some six million people…. Even if we compare the “purges” that Stalin launched in the Communist party to Hitler’s in the National Socialist Party, Hitler by then  had very little to show in comparison to Stalin’s liquidation of 700,000 people in the Great Purge of 1937–1938.
….the GPU, better known by its later acronym of NKVD, was an instrument of oppression far more ubiquitous than the Gestapo. Until the war, there were about 8,000 Gestapo torturers, as compared to 350,000 in the GPU.
Leaving aside such a-b comparisons, someone like myself—an unrepentant Marxist—has to wonder how Churchill comes off as a kind of vestal virgin trying to decide which suitor would be less likely to rob him of his innocence. Gray writes: “These facts may not have been known to Churchill in detail; but he was fully aware of the nature of Stalin’s tyranny. ”
Well, I doubt that Churchill cared much about “tyranny” in any case since the deal he cut with Hitler was fully intended to unleash the Nazi dogs of war on a country that was hostile to foreign investment. This ultimately was how the British government approached all foreign policy questions—from the standpoint of the Sterling note, not Platonic ideals of Good and Evil. Chamberlain was not “appeasing” Hitler. He was giving him the green light to destroy Bolshevism in the same manner that 21 invading armies had in 1919—including the British Empire.
All this was documented in Clement Lebowitz’s book on the Chamberlain-Hitler deal, which had a preface by Tony Benn that described the policy of the western governments “not [as] appeasement but of active sympathy and support for Germany.” Additionally, “there was a great deal of sympathy among the British establishment for what Hitler and Mussolini were doing. Indeed the essence of the appeasement policy was to persuade Hitler to abandon any plans he might have for an attack on the Western Front and to give him a very broad hint–if not an outright assurance–that if he turned East he could have a free hand.”
The other thing that gets up my nose is this business about Stalin’s cruelty toward the Ukrainians. Those schooled in history rather than the ethereal sphere of moral philosophy would surely understand that Stalin’s privations were simply just another example of the “primitive accumulation” described by Karl Marx in volume one of Capital (I understand that your MA thesis was on Marx’s theory of value, an undertaking seemingly in vain.) Compared to the British Empire, the USSR in the 1930s was a tea party. Just ask the Irish. Or all the Africans lost in the slave trade. Or the Indian victims of the British penetration of the textile industry. Or the Chinese victims of the Opium trade. It is my knowledge of this history by the “civilized” British that makes me realize how shrewd Gandhi was when he was asked what he thought of Western Civilization. He replied it was a good idea.
Things go from bad to worse when you pontificate on the Yalta agreement, which “accepted the systematically cruel and humiliating rule of Stalin over Eastern Europe…. It thereby rendered the Yalta agreement rotten.” I first heard these kinds of yelps about Yalta and Potsdam when I was a mere stripling in the 1950s and am puzzled to hear them now in 2010 when most educated people, at least those with a smattering of Marxist erudition, know that the West got much more than it gave up in these deals. Just ask yourself if it was worth giving up poor, peripheral Eastern Europe for a Western Europe that had the French Communist partisans agreeing to respect private property when they were effectively in power after WWII. I must say that it does not surprise me that you miss this angle since clearly you have a Manichean tendency to see the West as pure as the driven snow, despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the bombing of Dresden. Despite everything. I guess it is easy to adopt this sense of moral superiority when you work for a place at Princeton. After all, if you were capable of critical thought, you never would have been the recipient of a chair endowed in George Kennan’s name. The same George Kennan who once wrote:
Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.