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Blood Rites

Must Violence Always Be the Midwife of History?

MORAL PURITY AND PERSECUTION IN HISTORY By Barrington Moore Jr.; Princeton University Press: 149 pp., $24.95

THE FURIES Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions By Arno J. Mayer; Princeton University Press: 700 pp., $35

THE ROAD TO TERROR Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (Annals of Communism) By J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov; Yale University Press: 688 pp., $35

May 28, 2000|MARTIN MALIA | Martin Malia is the author of "The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991" and "Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum." He is professor emeritus of history at UC Berkeley


"Violence is the midwife of history," Marx famously proclaimed, and although most of his own century was disappointingly quiet, its successor became the age par excellence of revolution. To be sure, in their time the years 1640-1688 in England, 1776-1787 in America, and 1789-1799 in France were epochal affairs. (It is on the basis of these examples, especially the last, that Marx asserted the putatively universal principle that "revolutions are the locomotives of history.") But it was only in the twentieth century, beginning in 1917 in Russia and culminating between 1949 and 1979 in East Asia, that this "law" seemed about to be vindicated.

In the 20th century, also, revolutions became incomparably more bloody. Although royal heads had rolled earlier, and terror had temporarilly flared, never before had there been anything like the massive and prolonged exterminations that were the hallmark of twentieth century upheavals. Nevertheless, revolution, as formerly, was widely accounted a progressive phenomenon, a liberation from all the evils of the past -- "human emancipation," again in Marx's terminology.

So what was the relation between that humane end and the violent means employed to achieve it? The answer is inescapable that, if revolution is progressive, then the relation must in some measure be positive. Such, indeed, was the famous verdict of the existentialist philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in "Humanism and Terror," published in 1946 at the height of Stalinism: the only open question was the intensity and duration of the terror, and Merleau-Ponty opined that the world's sole ongoing revolution would remain within tolerable bounds. A half century later, in quieter times and with far more evidence on twentieth-century horror available, three historians who once held varying degrees of hope for revolutionary change, return to the problem of its human cost.


Barrington Moore Jr.'s "Moral Purity and Persecution in History," though the smallest in bulk of our three volumes is indirectly the most comprehensive since it builds on a lifetime's reflection on modernity, particularly his neo-Marxist magnum opus of 1966, "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy." This work starts with the proposition that modernity is about the revolutionary displacement of a lord-peasant society by capitalism, and its problem is to determine under what conditions this leads to democracy or instead ends in communism or fascism. And, although the method is the Marxist one of grounding these political outcomes in social classes, the conclusions are no longer Marx's own -- for the good reason that the twentieth century had confounded his expectations of a proletarian, socialist end of history.

Briefly, Moore's resolution of this conundrum is that modernization leads to democracy only when the bourgeoisie triumphs over the archaic world of lords and peasants. However, when capitalist development is captured by the aristocracy it yields fascism, as in Germany and Japan; and when it simply disrupts traditional society the result is a peasant upheaval leading to communism, as in Russia and China. In all three scenarios, however, massive violence is necessary to reach modernity, though democracy later permits peaceful progress towards some measure of social justice.

This ingenious adaptation of Marxism to un-Marxist reality, however, is vulnerable in the way all forms of Marxism are: it makes no allowance for the autonomy of politics and ideology in any historical mix. The short answer to Moore, then, is that fascism was nowhere created by an aristocracy anymore than Communism was by a peasantry: both were the handiwork of political ideologues, from Lenin and Trotsky to Mussolini and Hitler, who exploited national crises triggered by war (or war-induced Depression) to impose on society the unprecedented political phenomenon of a totalitarian Party state.

Eventually realizing he had short-changed the problem of revolutionary motivation, Moore later grappled with the ideological sources of social violence in a series of smaller works. His present study is a coda to this quest.

The book's argument is that in the twentieth century secularized versions of religious ideas of "pollution" and "moral impurity" have fueled mass movements for the extermination of political enemies. This impulse was "central to Fascism, Communism, and the imperial patriotism of Japan" in World War II, and later it cropped up in the American Christian right and Islamic fundamentalism. The source of this lethal tradition is Western monotheism, a force usually regarded as progressive, even by confirmed secularists.

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