Everett Collection

Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin at the Yalta conference,
February 1945

The work of Avishai Margalit provides a refreshing and instructive contrast to much that has become conventionally accepted in recent political thinking, particularly about the moral conflicts that arise in pursuit of peace. A longtime peace activist in Israel as well as one of the most important philosophers working on questions of ethics and politics today, Margalit was a founder of Moked, a small party advocating what was then seen as a revolutionary two-state solution to the Palestine–Israel conflict; it gained one seat out of 120 in the Knesset in the Israeli elections in 1973. As the years passed the two-state solution gradually became accepted, while officially encouraged settlement on the West Bank made it all the more difficult to carry out.

On Compromise and Rotten Compromises reflects over thirty years of practical and intellectual engagement with the moral issues raised by the search for peace. It begins with a simple assertion: “The book is in pursuit of just a peace, rather than of a just peace. Peace can be justified without being just.” Here Margalit is developing a line of reasoning set out in The Decent Society (1996), where he argued that avoiding evils and not the attempt to realize an ideal condition of justice should be the central focus of political thought and action. A decent society is one that does not inflict cruelty and humiliation on its members, and aims to avoid other universal evils such as war.

An impassioned advocate of “negative politics”—the politics of dealing with evils rather than striving for an ideal good—Margalit is clear that in a decent society many types of injustice would be corrected; he is no less clear that remedying injustice is not the same as moving toward a condition of perfect justice. But his point is not that theories of ideal justice (such as those of John Rawls, for example) should be replaced by a philosophy that focuses simply on making the world less unjust—a position set out in Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (2009). Margalit’s argument, implicit in The Decent Society and argued methodically in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, is different and more radical: the struggle for a decent society requires compromise, including the willingness to accept a less just world where this is necessary in order to stave off greater evil.

For anyone concerned with the moral quandaries of human conflict, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises contains much that will be of intense interest and lasting value. There is an illuminating discussion of two pictures of morality and politics. One is economic, in which practically everything can be exchanged in the markets; the other is a religious vision claiming that some things are holy and may never be traded off. Margalit goes on to observe how the politics of the holy can be used to support irredentism, sectarianism, and sectorialism (the division of society into separate parts). Whether in Jerusalem or India, he suggests, “the politics of the holy is the art of the impossible. It makes long-run compromises untenable.”

Margalit analyzes the logic of arriving at compromises, showing how arguments from political necessity are different from claims about expediency and both differ from compromise itself. In exploring varieties of compromise, Margalit distinguishes what he calls “cockroach in the soup” arguments, in which a rotten clause spoils the entire agreement, from “fly in the ointment” cases where a rotten clause makes an agreement that is flawed but not worthless. The American Constitution, he argues, “was a soup, with slavery being a huge cockroach.” The Versailles treaty had its clauses assigning guilt for the war entirely to Germany and they were wrong but they did not disqualify the entire agreement. (The US presumably expelled the cockroach from its soup by means of the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment.)

The core of the book is an examination of the moral dilemmas that surround World War II. Rather than employing the often far-fetched thought experiments that are the stuff of much contemporary philosophy—“On the whole, I have little trust in stylized examples,” he writes—Margalit has wisely chosen to examine actual examples: the Munich agreement appeasing Hitler; the wartime alliance between Britain, America, and Stalinist Russia; and the Yalta treaty. The Munich agreement, he suggests, was meant as a compromise by Chamberlain and his supporters; but it was a rotten compromise—a compromise of the type that should not be accepted under any circumstances—because it was “a pact with radical evil, evil as an assault on morality itself.”

Radical evil, he writes, means “not just committing evil but trying to eradicate the very idea of morality—by actively rejecting the premise on which morality is predicated, namely, our shared humanity.” In contrast the compromise that was made when Churchill allied Britain with the Soviet Union in the struggle against Nazism was morally right, even though Stalin’s moral record was worse than Hitler’s at the time. “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.” Up to the outbreak of war, and indeed up to June 1941 when Churchill defended the alliance with Russia in the House of Commons, Stalin’s regime had killed and tortured far more people than Hitler’s:


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 [1939] had very little to show in comparison to Stalin’s liquidation of 700,000 people in the Great Purge of 1937–1938.

Margalit adds that “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.”

These facts may not have been known to Churchill in detail; but he was fully aware of the nature of Stalin’s tyranny. Even so he had no hesitation in allying Britain with Stalin. Here his statement in a broadcast he made on June 22, 1941, quoted by Margalit, is worth reproducing;

The Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism. It is devoid of all theme and principle except appetite and racial domination. It excels all forms of human wickedness in the efficiency of its cruelty and ferocious aggression. No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the past twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past, with its crimes, its follies, and its tragedies, flashes away.

While the wartime alliance with Stalin can be defended as a justified compromise, Margalit condemns the Yalta agreement, which “accepted the systematically cruel and humiliating rule of Stalin over Eastern Europe…. It thereby rendered the Yalta agreement rotten.” Very little that was agreed on in Yalta had not been agreed on previously; when the agreement was signed the overall shape of postwar Europe, including the incorporation of Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries into the Soviet bloc, had been decided. Soviet forces had already occupied Poland and were approaching Berlin. Nothing that could be done by the Allies could alter these facts.

Despite this, Margalit condemns the agreement as rotten, for it legitimated a rotten state of affairs. Moreover, Yalta made possible “Operation Keelhaul,” the forced repatriation to the Soviet Union that occurred in May and June 1945 and continued until 1947 of over two million displaced people, some of them Nazi collaborators but most simply Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans and some who had never been Soviet citizens, by American and British forces.

Those who defended this operation, which was publicly admitted only after nearly thirty years,1 did so largely on grounds of necessity or expediency, with the British foreign minister Anthony Eden arguing that the operation was necessary in order to ensure the safe return of Allied service people in Soviet hands and maintain good relations with the Soviets. As Margalit shows, the factual basis of such arguments is at best shaky. “There is not a shred of evidence,” he writes, that refusing the Soviet demand for repatriation “would have ended the alliance with the Soviet Union.”

As to the possibility that the Soviets would delay the return of around 25,000 British and American prisoners of war, “there is not a shred of evidence that the Russians threatened reprisal, though no one doubted they were capable of it.” In any case, no argument can justify what was in effect a crime against humanity: “Crimes against humanity…extend…to prisoners of war and to ex-prisoners of war, as my example of the forced repatriation of Soviet prisoners of war into Stalinist Russia at the end of the Second World War attests.” In enabling forcible repatriation Yalta was a rotten agreement, even if there was no feasible alternative to the situation of Soviet occupation in which it was made.

In returning to the perennial reality of choice among evils, and illuminating these choices through a richly detailed analysis of a conflict that shaped the world we live in today, Margalit shows us how moral and political philosophy should be done. It is impossible to find fault with his conclusions regarding the compromises he examines. In allying Britain with Stalin’s Russia, Churchill was not denying the evil of communism; he was looking ahead to the greater evil of Nazism.


But Churchill’s account of the threat to morality posed by Nazism and communism differs from Margalit’s in crucial respects, and here I side with Churchill rather than Margalit. For Churchill the choice between Nazism and communism—not Stalinism, but the regime established by Lenin—was a choice between radical evils, with communism being the lesser of the two at the time of the Soviet entrance into the war. To my mind, moral reflection and the evidence of history support Churchill’s view.

Margalit distinguishes between regimes that rest on cruelty and humiliation, as many have done throughout history, and those that reject morality as such. He makes another distinction: morality, he tells us, has to do with how human relations should be simply in virtue of our being human, whereas ethics concerns how we should behave toward other people with whom we have special relationships, such as family members, friends, and coreligionists. Morality and ethics may be at odds, sometimes irreconcilably, and in Margalit’s view most of what are normally considered to be tragic moral dilemmas are examples of “the clash between morality and ethics.” He does not deny that “there are cases of genuine moral dilemmas, in my narrow use of the term ‘moral.'” But he believes these moral dilemmas do not concern him here, and does not accept that the choice Churchill faced in June 1941 was a dilemma of this kind.

A part of Margalit’s argument rests on his account of Stalinism. While fully acknowledging that Stalin’s regime was based on cruelty and humiliation, Margalit still finds in Stalinism a “form of Leninism and not a separate new ideology,” as he rightly describes it—and he argues that Leninism contained moral elements that were lacking in Nazism:

Marxist-Leninists in the Soviet Union under Stalin retained the moral vision of a nonexploitative classless society for humanity at large; this is a very different doctrine from Nazism, which rejected any form of recognized morality by essentially dividing humanity into immutable races.

In the Marxist-Leninist vision, morality will wither away when scarcity has been overcome. Margalit accepts that this vision of an abstract new humanity in a post-moral world encouraged a “dangerous fantasy of callousness towards the concrete people of today.” Bourgeois and Jews, he reminds us, “were perceived in equally inhuman terms—as ‘parasites.'” Even so, he rejects the view of some supporters of the Popular Front and of Churchill, who considered allying with Stalin against Hitler as a choice of the lesser evil:

They were all wrong at the time in their lesser-evil argument, since, judging by conventional standards of decency and justice, Stalin’s regime in the thirties was by no means the lesser evil of the two. And yet these people sensed something right and important, namely, that Hitler introduced an altogether new and different kind of evil.

Stalin’s attitude toward morality, Margalit suggests, resembled that of the fifteenth-century Spanish inquisitor Torquemada. “Both retained, albeit perversely, the idea of shared humanity.” By rejecting this idea, Hitler repudiated morality itself.

That Nazism involved a new and different kind of evil is beyond question. The Holocaust was, and remains, a unique crime. Nothing like the Nazi extermination camps that operated at Sobibor and Treblinka existed in the Soviet gulag. The millions who died in Soviet concentrations camps died from overwork, undernourishment, and inhuman conditions—in other words, as a result of the system of slave labor. As Robert Gellately has put it:

The crime that sets the Third Reich apart was the mass murder of the Jews. The Holocaust stands alone. The Soviet Union never had factories designed to produce nothing but mass death, even if they managed to kill millions just the same.2

By the end of 1941 the Nazis had killed one million Jews in the Soviet Union and the Baltic States; by the end of 1942 they had shot another 700,000. As Timothy Snyder has shown, much of the Holocaust was carried out using bullets.3 Mass murder on this scale involved the complicity of some parts of local populations, but the driving force was Nazi racist ideology. European and Soviet Jews were killed simply for being Jews.

How much of this Churchill knew, and the extent to which he could have acted on what he knew, continues to be disputed. What cannot be in dispute is Churchill’s recognition that the Holocaust belongs in a category of its own. In a note to Eden in July 1944, he wrote of the Nazi assault on Jews:

There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the history of the world…. It is clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders in carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death.4

In recognizing that Nazism was radically evil, Churchill and Margalit are at one. Where they part company is that Churchill believed that communism was also radically evil, even though it did not commit anything like the Nazis’ supreme crime.

Churchill actively supported military intervention in the Russian civil war, with the explicit aim of overthrowing the Bolshevik government, and he continued to support resistance to the Soviet regime well into the Twenties. Again, only days after Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, Churchill was asking his chiefs of staff whether Anglo-American forces, reinforced by elements from the defeated German army, could launch an offensive to drive Soviet forces from Eastern and Central Europe, with the strategic goal of securing “a fair deal for Poland.” Churchill’s proposal, which came to be code-named Operation Unthinkable and was revealed only fifty years later,5 was soon rejected by British and American military planners as unfeasible. The plan was reexamined in 1946 in the context of defensive preparations for the cold war, but a rollback of Soviet power by force was never seen as a serious option by any Western military authorities. The chief significance of the plan is what it shows of the consistent intensity of Churchill’s opposition to communism.

No doubt a part of his opposition stemmed from the threat he believed the Soviet regime posed to the British Empire, not least in India. Churchill’s anticommunism was never wholly or even mainly rooted in geopolitical strategy, however. He rejected communism as a political ideal, believing it to be not only essentially incompatible with liberty and democracy but also inherently destructive of civilized life. In Churchill’s view communism and Nazism were both instances of totalitarianism, a category that has been much criticized in recent years but that still seems essential if the moral extremity of twentieth-century politics is to be adequately described.

Aside from noting that Stalinism was a development from Leninism and not a separate ideology, Margalit says very little about communism before Stalin. He cites the historian E.P. Thompson’s claim that “the years in Stalingrad between 1942 and 1946, much like those between 1917 and the early twenties,” were a period that revealed “the most human face of communism.” He quotes Leszek Ko akowski challenging Thompson in a celebrated exchange:

Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims…? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies? Do you mean the so-called “collectivization” of the Baltic countries, if you have any idea about the reality of this word?

Margalit writes that Ko akowski “forcefully questions the aptness of Thompson’s ‘human-face’ account” of the war years in the Soviet Union, but still concludes that those years “were morally better” than the years before the war. “Better,” he writes, “but not good enough to preclude their being described as years of a cruel and humiliating regime.” If he is referring chiefly to the heroic fight against the Nazis, in which over twenty million Soviet citizens lost their lives, Margalit is surely right.

In line with Thompson and with many liberals and social democrats, however, Margalit does not ask whether the “human-face” account can accurately be appied to Russia between 1917 and the early Twenties. Does this human face include the reinstatement of capital punishment (which had been abolished by the Provisional government) in June 1918, or the outlawing of opposition newspapers and political parties in the spring and early summer of that year? Does it include Lenin’s orders of August 9, 1918, to “shoot and transport hundreds of prostitutes” and intern “kulaks, priests, White Guards, and other doubtful elements” in concentration camps? Does it mean Lenin’s order of August 11 in response to a peasant revolt against grain confiscation, ordering the public hanging—“hang without fail, so the people see”—of “no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers”—a task that Lenin noted required finding “some truly hard men”? Or Lenin’s refusal to authorize any action when informed by Jewish groups in October 1920 of pogroms committed by the Red Army during its retreat from Poland?6

According to Margalit, “Stalin’s reign of terror was random.” “A quota of victims had to be filled, regardless of any wrongdoing.” Whether or not this was so in the case of Stalin, it is not true of Lenin, who from the beginning of the Bolshevik regime targeted specific social groups for execution, imprisonment, and exclusion from society. As Lenin himself put it, his overriding goal was “to clean Russia of all vermin, fleas, bugs—the rich, and so on.” It might be thought that Lenin was the original Communist exponent of Torquemada’s attitude toward morality, in which a concern for shared humanity is joined with a readiness to apply terror to large numbers of human beings. It would be more accurate to say that in Lenin’s view morality did not apply to large parts of humanity.

It is true that there is nothing in Lenin’s thinking that corresponds to the Nazi dismemberment of humanity into immutable racial groups. Lenin’s retrograde elements—priests, kulaks, sex workers, bourgeois intellectuals, and many others—belonged for him to a stage of history that was being left behind. Once these human remnants had been dispatched they would never return, and a utopian condition would be realized that would extend to all of humankind. But for that very reason members of these groups could be treated inhumanly, both in practice and in theory. A part of humanity that had had its day, they were not entitled to the protection of morality.

By denying moral standing to members of groups he judged retrogressive, Lenin repudiated morality itself. In this regard communism must be judged radically evil, despite the fact that its crimes did not include racial extermination of the kind committed by the Nazis. When he considered whether to ally Britain with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, Churchill faced a genuine moral dilemma; but not all such dilemmas are insoluble. It is a measure of Churchill’s insight into this world-shaping moral conflict that when faced with a choice between two radical evils he had no hesitation in making the right decision.

This Issue

April 8, 2010