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Alain Besançon's Diagnoses

by Françoise Thom

Alain Besançon has just left us at the age of 91. He did not shine in the media spotlight, preferring the respect of his chosen friends to the ephemeral fame of those who deftly adapted to current intellectual fashions. Today, many historians who study the USSR and Russia are indebted to him — even those who have never read his books and do not recognize his merits. The reason is that much of his innovative research has become mainstream, thanks to the silent and discerning screening by time, which discards false fame and academic charlatanism, slowly raising to full stature those who knew how to prevail over their time with freedom of spirit and a gift of powerful intuition.

Alain Besançon, the son of an acclaimed doctor from a wealthy family, made a decision in 1951 that he would regret for the rest of his life: He joined the Communist Party. He served in the army, then married, studied at a history faculty, and left the party in 1956, after Khrushchev's secret report which exposed the crimes of Stalinism, and — it is important to note — unlike many French communists, had done so before the armed invasion of Hungary by the Soviet troops. "Overnight, I became a liberal conservative, which I have remained ever since. When I met Raymond Aron in 1968, I found it quite natural to regard him as my teacher." (Alain Besançon, "Itinéraires", Commentaire, n°105, spring 2019).

Later, in an autobiographical essay, he explained his reasons for leaving the party as follows: "I was cured of communism, because the environment which contributed to its emergence (like emergence of a disease) had changed and stopped nourishing it. My overall revolt had a family conflict at its source. This conflict disappeared as a result of me moving from one family to another, the one where I now lived and which I created myself." (Alain Besançon, Une Génération, Paris, 1987, p. 322).

In 1961-1962, at the age of 28, he spent a year in the USSR as a grant-aided student. He was learning Russian and already taking interest in the phenomenon of revolution in Russia, as well as studying the intelligentsia of the 19th century. "It is impossible to summarize everything that year had taught me. It was one blow after another, which I could not grasp right there on the spot, and which continued to reverberate long after I returned to Paris, and lingers on to this day...". (Alain Besançon, "Itinéraires", Commentaire, n°105, spring 2019).

Besançon tried to understand how he could ever have become a communist, and how multitudes of others could have joined in the service to this destructive regime. Returning to France, he felt deeply lonely intellectually, since the study of history at that time was dominated by the Marxist approach, giving priority to the economic and the social. "I returned to Paris to an atmosphere of universal ignorance, when Providence sent Mark Raeff my way, a professor at Columbia University in New York. This extraordinarily kind and wise man understood my misgivings and provided me with a Ford scholarship to study at Columbia University. The year was 1963. Academic America, after a gloomy stay in Russia, seemed like a beautiful dream to me...". (Alain Besançon, "Itinéraires", Commentaire, n°105, spring 2019).

How should one understand the USSR?

To understand the originality of Alain Besançon, it helps to first recall the conceptual framework in which the USSR was being presented in the West until the 1950s, especially after the crisis of 1929, when many Westerners doubted liberal democracy; and then, in the middle of the 1930s, when the USSR, closing in on itself, launched propaganda for the union of leftist forces and popular fronts in the West under the banner of anti-fascism. Marxism-Leninism was reviving the cult of revolution among the Western leftists, so the same question was being asked as of the French Revolution: How is one to explain the bloody repression and terror in the name of the ideology of emancipation of the masses?

At that time, there were four concepts of the USSR: communist, according to which the USSR was in the process of building a "socialist paradise"; Trotskyist, which claimed that the revolution had been betrayed by the Thermidorian Stalin (at the same time, a good Lenin is opposed to a bad Stalin); the concept of fellow travelers (Western left-wing intellectuals who sympathize with the USSR), according to which "chop wood — chips fly" [a Russian equivalent of "You have to break eggs to make an omelet"] (See Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Soviet Communism: New Civilization); and the concept of repentant ex-communists (for example, Boris Suvarin, whose biography of Stalin was published in 1935), who decided to make a decisive break with the ideology and no longer try to justify the doctrine.

The widely discussed main question was this: Did the USSR betray the revolutionary ideals, and if so, when? The crisis of 1929 and the New Deal in the USA gave rise to the idea of convergence of the two systems, a thesis that would become extremely popular in the West during the Grand Alliance (1942-1945). The idea was for the West to become more socialist, and for the USSR to develop toward democracy. The two systems would eventually meet halfway. Stalin knew perfectly how to manipulate the negotiators in the West, especially President Roosevelt, using this thesis: Wasn't the new constitution of 1936 "the most democratic in the world"? Without a doubt, elections would be held in countries "liberated" by the Red Army.

Under the banner of anti-fascism, the Bolsheviks managed to win over most of the Western intelligentsia. Famous writers T. Dreiser, S. Anderson, E. Caldwell, J. Dos Passos and others signed a letter which said, "Capitalism is the destroyer of all culture, and communism wants to save the civilization..."

Theory of totalitarianism

Reflections on Nazism and the "Cold War" gradually overturned intellectual debate in the West in the 1950s. In 1951, Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, which equated Stalinism and Nazism, thus contributing to the new concept of "totalitarianism". It is necessary to take into account the study of the Smolensk archives, which fell into the hands of the Germans, and which gave the Western historians their first insight into the inner workings of the Soviet system. The next thing was the shock caused by the autobiographical book of the defector Viktor Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom, published in 1946, in which Kravchenko revealed the horrors of collectivization, Soviet camps, the exploitation of prisoners for free labor, and the atmosphere of terror reigning in the USSR. An entire range of historians — Merle Feinsod, Adam Ulam, Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes — began to develop the theory of totalitarianism, and as a result characteristics of totalitarian regimes became defined: official ideology, one-party system, police control based on terror, the monopoly on communications and armed forces, centralized control over the economy.

"I had an idea for a book..."

Besançon developed his theory in France, supplementing it with his inherent intuition, which would remain at the core of all his work. "Communism is not simply a dictatorship. It is based on something, or rather a non-existence, which is difficult to understand: an ideology [...] which distinguishes Leninism from all other tyrannical formations history had ever known." (Alain Besançon, "Itinéraires", Commentaire, n°105, spring 2019).

The project to create a new man and the claim to scientificity are the two criteria which characterize the ideology which gives rise to totalitarianism. For Lenin, "dialectical materialism" is, first of all, the authority of science to justify revolution. Marxist-Leninist ideology is not a religion. As Besançon liked to say, "A believer knows that he believes, and Lenin believes what he knows."

Ideology represents, in his view, a contemporary revival of gnosis as a directive for thought. Like gnosis, it presupposes the struggle of two antagonistic principles. It shares with gnosis an absolute rejection of the world as such, for this world is perceived as evil incarnate; it also presupposes the denial of free will in the face of knowledge, which it imposes through its the alleged obviousness. Therefore, the existing world must be destroyed in the name of salvation, the path for which is paved by a small number of initiates who possess total knowledge. The advent of socialism, the salvation of mankind are unthinkable if the human being does not change. The idea of creating a new person is at the heart of the communist project. The Bolsheviks see the construction of their utopia as a constant struggle against what constitutes human nature: family ties, relationship with God, freedom of speech, free involvement in social life, production of wealth. And since nature resists, the regime resorts to terror in order to force people into submission to ideological surrealism. Lie is the integral element of the communist regime.

But how can one explain the extraordinary influence of ideology in Soviet Russia? Besançon was looking for clues in the Russian past. Orthodoxy emphasizes the liturgy, to the detriment of ethical and intellectual education. It prefers mysticism, which pulls believers out of the earthly sinful world and frees them from the practice of the modest virtues of the Western bourgeois. The Orthodox tradition presupposes subordination of spiritual power to secular power, and promotes the emergence of a national church in Russia. However, the loss of prestige by the Orthodox Church following the reforms of Peter the Great who enslaved and discredited it, led to the spread of pietism, sentimentalism, and esoteric illuminism in Russia. And all of this prepared the ground for a mass fascination with German romanticism.

From the German romantics, the Russian Slavophiles inherited their dislike of "materialism" and "rationalism", in which they saw symptoms of the decline of Europe; from them they also inherited an aversion to common morality. Russian Slavophiles enthusiastically expressed their contempt for the law, accused the Latin tradition of legalism, opposing law to sobornost — the capacity for spontaneous Christian love which they attributed to the Russian soul. Dostoevsky portrays great sinners whose mystical aspirations place them above the dull Western people who adhere to mundane bourgeois morality. And ends up confusing Christ with the Russian "God-bearer people".

Thus, the utopianism of the Slavophiles, who create a fictitious people, an imaginary rural community, a falsified history, paves way for revolutionary utopianism. Slavophiles and Bolsheviks are related in their hostility to property, to capitalism, to money, to law.

Regression in emotions, denigration of intellect, propensity to lie embraced by Slavophiles — all this facilitated the ideological indoctrination of Russians for many years to come. In his works The Murdered Tsarevich (1991), The Intellectual Origins of Leninism (1977), The Falsification of the Good (1984) and Holy Russia (2012), Besançon studies what he called "the religious matrix" of the Russian history: the glorification of the people — the supposed "God-bearers", whose subservience before power and disregard for the law are taught as the highest Christian virtues, thanks to which a Russian peasant surpasses the degenerate Catholic or Protestant of the West who needs the law to keep safe from performing bad actions, while in Russia communion in the love of Christ occurs spontaneously.

"The religious matrix has taken root in the Russian consciousness. Even when it became forgotten — for example, during the era of the St. Petersburg emperors — or became violently erased, as during the Bolsheviks, it still rose to the surface, and today it has been called to life as a forgotten but well-known melody..." (Alain Besançon, Holy Russia, Editions de Fallois, 2012).


In the years between 1960 and 1975, leftism spread across the Western universities. The perception of the USSR again became colored by ideology. The totalitarian paradigm came under criticism from the left-wing Sovietology, which now began to be called "revisionist". The totalitarian model gave way to the theory of modernization. The "sociological" school asserted that it was necessary to study society, and not to focus on the regime. Its criticism of the totalitarian school of thought pivoted on several key points:

- We cannot rely on the testimony of defectors who are biased and partial, and it is better to study the previously unused Soviet sources.

– The totalitarian model is static, but the regime changes. The Communist Party as it is now bears little resemblance of the Bolsheviks of the early days. (In this sense the "revisionists" were right: the theory of totalitarianism could not explain the evolution of the system).

- The leadership has never been monolithic — there are clans within the Kremlin, various decision-making venues, conflicts between "conservatives" and "reformers". In brief, there is hidden pluralism in the USSR.

- Society is not crushed. The regime has managed to create a consensus, Lenin enjoyed the support of the workers, so there can be no question of a Bolshevik "coup". Thus, the regime has legitimacy.

Before the opening of the archives, "revisionists" either denied or downplayed the scale of the great purges and terror and admired the amazing mechanism of social lifts at the times of Stalinism.

Miracles of ingenuity were put into motion to find justifications for Stalin: he reluctantly allowed the purges under the pressure of Ezhov; local authorities overdid it, they are responsible for expanding the purges; Stalin, in fact, was a great modernizer who was forced, due to Russia's backwardness, to resort to somewhat harsh methods; collectivization was an attempt to integrate peasants. In this historiography, the good Lenin is opposed by the rather excessively cruel Stalin.

"Totalitarians" and "revisionists" also interpreted the causes of the "Cold War" differently. For the former, the clash was inevitable because of the expansionism inscribed in the Soviet ideology. Stalin wanted an empire to spread communism. As soon as the Western leaders stopped yielding to him and began to resist his desire for expansion, a conflict arose. For the revisionists, the responsibility for ending cooperation with the USSR after the war lies with the United States. Even during the war, they were already — allegedly — bad allies, preferring Great Britain instead of trusting Stalin, who only wanted to reform the USSR and abandoned his policy of expanding socialism. Truman "traumatized" Stalin by using atomic weapons against Japan. Revisionist historians tried to prove that Stalin reacted from case to case, improvising, without having a general strategy.

All these debates found a response in France. For many years, left-wing sovietologists held the upper hand, dominating at universities, in mass media and within think tanks. In France Marxism was fashionable at the time and preference was being given to sociological approaches to history, since they allow students (and teachers) to get by without excessive mental effort and without acquiring deep historical and philosophical culture, which is necessary for a real historian.

Besançon, with the support of a small group of students, friends and dissidents who had experienced communism first-hand, was fighting against the surrounding Sovietophilia for a historian's right to adhere to ethical principles and to condemn communism for its criminal essence.

The middle of the 1970s became a turning point. In France, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago produced the effect of an electric shock, intensified by the tragedy of the boat people [refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and ship following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975] and the news of the genocide in Cambodia. Marxism was losing its hegemony in the universities. Many former communists, Trotskyists, Maoists, and the like began to repent. The question Besançon pondered for many years arose again: How does the Russian past weigh on the Soviet history?

The opening of the archives of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin periods confirmed Besançon's main point: the central role of ideology in the Soviet system, including its foreign policy. They showed Stalin's leading role in collectivization and purges, documented the criminal nature of the government. The collapse of the communist regimes also showed that they had no popular support.

"In 1990," says Besançon, "Soviet communism disappeared like a bad dream. The memory of it also faded. On the other hand, the memory of Nazism does not fade. It is absolute evil. But Communism — which can boast even more dead bodies and dead souls on its account — is relative evil. It is no longer interesting." (Alain Besançon, "Itinéraires", Commentaire, n°105, spring 2019).

Unlike his many American friends, such as the historian Martin Malia, Besançon did not believe that Russia was healing after the victory of Boris Yeltsin. He was all too well aware of the depth of the intellectual and moral destruction wrought on Russia by the Bolsheviks over half a century previously. "Russia had to carry out a radical, official expulsion of the idea of communism, following the formula of "damnatio memoriae" ["condemnation of memory"] of its communist past. It had to agree to be born again, doing what post-war Germany did. But Russia, on the contrary, did everything to avoid this purge. Instead of candidly returning to the question of the multitude of committed crimes and villainies, they prefer not to remember." (Alain Besançon, Holy Russia, Editions de Fallois, 2012).

He watched with concern Russia returning to the Orthodox, autocratic, and Slavophile matrix that made Bolshevism possible. He was outraged by the stupidity of Western conservatives, who accepted at face value Putin's myth about Russia as a "stronghold of Christianity", a champion of "traditional values". As almost the entire right wing in France became Putinophile, Besançon wrote his last book, Holy Russia, to combat pro-Russian French tropism, revealing the anatomy of Russian lies. But he had no illusions about the outcome of his efforts: Russophiles resemble incorrigible sectarians who cannot be swayed either by glaring facts or rational arguments. Until the very end, Besançon had the impression that all those who understood Russia “could fit into a minibus", as he liked to joke.

Alain Besançon was interested not only in Russian topics. In particular, he devoted many of his works to the evolution of the Catholic Church. We also owe him a debt of gratitude for a profound book which traces the history of iconoclasm. Nevertheless, Besançon constantly returned to the Russian theme, because Russia's example so prominently demonstrates deviations that can be observed in the Western world — he exaggerates them and shows their consequences when they are carried to extremes.

The source of all our troubles is rejection of the world as it is, rejection of nature, negation of human nature, rejection of natural law: this is the guiding thread of Besançon's work. He is interested in numerous manifestations of modern nihilism. Forgetting the transcendent results in erasure of personality, in rejection of divisions, of individualization, which form the basis of being. Modern iconoclasm leads to the destruction of beauty. The belief that all points of view are equal leads to indifference to the truth.

This is the diagnosis given by Alain Besançon, the son of a doctor, to the ailments of our time.

Paris, August 2023

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