We have all seen it happen and some of us may even be guilty of doing this ourselves. If two individuals are having a particularly nasty argument about politics it is almost inevitable that somebody is going to get called a fascist. Quite what that means exactly is hard to ascertain. Those on the political left call fascism’s authoritarian strong state tendencies. Yet, whatever your preferred political stance happens to be. We all seem to be able to agree that being a fascist is a bad thing.
Aside from a handful of deranged individuals the default ideological staring point of pretty much every person that opens their mouths to expresses a political opinion today is that they are definitely not a fascist. And this is for a good reason.
The brutal fascist regimes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were responsible for piling up dead bodies on a scale unknown to humanity before that point. This is before we begin to count the tens of millions more who died on the battlefields of the second world war that was fought (among other things) to bring down fascism. But there is a puzzling fact here. There were not one but two murderous ideologies from the twentieth century that have the blood of millions of people on their hands. The first being fascism, the second being communism.
This presents us with a puzzling state of affairs. Fascism is rightly regarded as taboo. As I mentioned above, calling yourself a fascist or even harboring empathy for fascism bars you from entering any meaningful civilized political discourse. And yet the same rule does not apply for communism.
In fact there are a great many people today who openly express their sympathy for the ideals of communism. The rather shocking sentiments that are expressed in this article in The Guardian are quite common place in socialist circles. This is even more difficult to explain when we compare the body count of the two ideologies. Nazi Germany killed six million Jews during the Holocaust. This increases to around ten million if we include Soviet POW’s, Poles, Gypsies and Homosexuals.
On this metric communism is by far the worse ideology. During the terrible reign of Joseph Stalin the estimated death toll ranges from around 15 million all the way to 25 million. And that was at the behest of just one leader. If we include Chairman Mao: 45 million, Pol Pot: around 2 million, Kim Jong Un & Kim Il Sung: around 3 million the loss of life at the hands of communist regimes becomes truly staggering. And this is far from an exhaustive list of the communist leaders of the twentieth century. Moreover, while fascism has only been put into practice in two countries communism has been tried in over 20; all with grimly predictable results. Nor has communism been a fantastic economic success. Communist countries have traditionally lagged behind their capitalist and mixed economy counterparts to put it mildly.
So why is wearing a swastika generally understood to be grounds for making somebody a pariah while communism or an affiliation with communism is for the most part accepted?
There are some plausible theories for why this may be the case. The first is the idea that because the allies won the Second World War fascism is discredited whereas communism was the ideology of one of the victors. There is some logic in this. The fact that so many of our countrymen lost their lives fighting Hitler and Mussolini makes fascism not only a barbaric ideology but thoroughly unpatriotic. But this ignores the events that took place straight after Hitler unloaded the contents of his pistol into his cranium deep inside his Berlin bunker. The cold war began as soon as world war two ended. Where WWII lasted for six years the Cold War simmered for just under five decades. Add to this the fact that a nuclear armed USSR was just as much an existential threat to the western world as Hitler’s Wehrmacht was. I reckon that we have a fairly convincing case that fascism is no more unpatriotic than communism.
Another possible explanation for why communism is still deemed morally acceptable is that our count
ry is awash with genuine communists. Perhaps such a large number of people endorse what Mao, Stalin and Khrushchev did that it would be impossible to paint communism with the same stigma as fascism. There might be some more mileage in this. Indeed, last year when the centenary of the Russian Revolution rolled around people described Lenin and his fellow Soviets in fawning terms as ‘revolutionaries’.
But despite the obvious appeal communism still has for many I don’t find this explanation particularly convincing. To give credit where credit is due apart from the small die hard cadres of the hard-left (useful idiots to use Stalin’s term for them) the savage realities of life under Soviet rule lost the USSR its appeal to western left wingers somewhere in the 1960s. After this the left adjusted itself just enough so that the charge of “Soviet lackey” wouldn’t stick. An endeavor in which they were largely successful. Even today very few left wing people profess to be dyed in the wool communists. As I write this article the Communist Party of Britain has just over 700 members… This is hardly enough comrades to sway national opinion.
I believe the real reason that the hammer and sickle does not convey as much dread as the death head should leave us feeling much less comfortable. But first we need to understand a little bit about both ideologies.
I agree with Johnathon Meades. Fascism is now a meaningless term. This is in part because it has been used as a catch-all political slur rather than an objective statement of fact. Surely the sight of black clad, masked thugs assaulting political opponents whilst somehow claiming to be ‘anti-fascists’ is proof enough that fascism is a rather loose term to say the least.
But even during its heyday fascism was a mess of contradictions. Let us focus solely on Nazi Germany for a moment. It was radically modernist whilst steeping itself if folk tales and ancient Germanic lore. It was an aggressive expansionist country while at the same time being isolationist in its outlook. Hitler spent a decade establishing a strong centralized state that ultimately proved chaotic and ineffective when confronted with the challenge of invading an almost pathetically unprepared USSR. These sorts of contradictions are even present in fascist Italy. Mussolini commissioned some of the most monumental modernist architecture in Europe by drawing heavily on ancient Roman themes. Anyway, you get the idea.
Admittedly this does not give us much to work with and I am by no means an expert on the subject. Sure enough any attempt to make some kind of sense out of the historical morass of fascism is bound to fall foul of some factoid hidden in the endless pages of literature that have been devoted to fascism in the decades following the second world war. And yet I believe one thing does go at least some way to helping us understand what made Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy tick- fear.
If we look closely at the history of the two fascist regimes I believe fear is a common factor. This is not to paint the twin fascist dictators as merely frightened children, far from it. Powerful and violent emotions are born out of fear; hatred, revulsion, anger, misanthropy etc. Mein Kampf is a book filled with a terrible fear. Fear of betrayal by the Weimar elite, fear of the international ‘Jewry’, fear that the fabled fatherland will be lost at the hands of foreign powers.
It has been said that fascism constitutes a ‘conservative revolution’ and I think this is at least party right. The iconography of Nazi Germany speaks to this negative emotion by restoring order, promoting safety and traditional hierarchy. The photograph of the Reichstag fire, propaganda posters showing the ideal German family huddled together, terrible anti-Semitic pictures of Jews depicted as monsters and films like The Triumph of the Will all played on the fears of ordinary Germans. This is echoed in Fascist Italy where the cult of Il Duce who will keep Italy safe and rally the nation behind him was extremely effective.
So to summarize my view is that at least to some extent fascism owes its success to the ability of the leader to play on the fears of their citizens.
We could perhaps say the same of communism. Communist dictators have never been strangers to using fear of an external enemy or the capitalist class to whip up violence. Fear of the vengeful bourgeoisie has played an important role in communist propaganda around the world. Yet, I think the thing that really drives communism is different. The imperative element of communism is hope. Once again, this is not to make communism seem benign. Like fear, hope can be a potent all-consuming impulse that has an abundance of negative outcomes. People who are excessively hopeful can scorn those who try to stand in their way, distrust people who do not share their ambitions and openly ignore evidence that may prove their desires impossible. This subtle but crucial difference goes some way to differentiating the two monster ideologies of the twentieth century.
If we compare the propaganda of the Soviet Union to that of the Third Reich this difference is clear to see. The outpouring of art that followed the ascension of Vladimir Lenin to the upper echelons of the Russian Empire is awash with bountiful fields, smiling peasant girls, rose cheeked proletarians and well-fed iron jowled soldiers. The propaganda looks very different because the emotion that the USSR’s leaders played on was very different. You only have to compare the Nuremberg rally to the Soviet Parade of Athletics. Even as the capitalist countries enjoyed the economic prosperity brought by the post war boom the Soviets were almost certain that it would only be a matter of time before the standard of living in the USSR would outpace those of the USA, spoiler alert- they never did.
It is this hope that has helped communist regimes stagger on for so long after political fratricide and economic disaster. Commitment to the illusion that things were ‘getting better’ defined the public facade of the Soviet elite from the 1960s onward. In Bill Curtis’ brilliant documentary Hypernormalisation he describes a bizarre state of affairs where everybody in the eastern bloc knew that the old communist economies were failing and yet, nobody was allowed to state this out loud. They were living in a sort of alternate reality where the only permissible sentiment one could express was faith in the communist system.
I believe this hopeful aspect of communism explains what is arguable one of the strangest political phenomena of our age: the firm belief by many that “communism has never really been tried.” Or “it wasn’t real communism.”
How can we have a state of affairs where a political system has been tried and failed miserably in a wide variety of different nations across almost every single continent but people still cling to the belief that it might actually work? The answer has to be hope. Ultimately communism is draws sustenance from following formula:
If we can just get people to do X then Y will follow. If Y is a positive or necessary goal then any amount of coercion to make people do X is justified.
This is why I think so many people are willing to give communism a pass whilst fascism is deemed beyond the pale. When most historians discuss fascism they quite rightly talk frame it as a reaction to something. Like a diamond buried deep underground, fascism is formed by the crushing pressure of powerful social forces whereas communism is something different. The political system that emerged after the Russian Revolution was part reaction to the hardships sustained by The Great War but after the gunshots of civil war died down it became a utopian project to create a better future. You can take that idea with as much salt as you feel would be appropriate. Whether Lenin, Stalin or Mao really cared much about the fate of their countrymen can be debated. However, the utopian aspect of communism is certainly how the ideology was sold to the unlucky masses who now found themselves under collectivist rule.
The real reason then why communism is not as maligned as fascism is to put it bluntly that we have learned our lesson from fascism but not from communism. The basic belief that forcing individuals to do things because the outcome would be desirable by a certain number of people (the end justifies the means if you like) is still a very important feature of our current political arrangement. Waking up to this fact would be a hugely positive step. I am not the only person to have made this point. Jordan Peterson has made an appeal to members of the political left to define ‘when the left wing doctrine has gone too far’ but to no avail. Similarly Albert Camus famously quipped that the left is really more of a religion than a political ideology.
There have been a small number of socialists who have woken up to this fact George Orwell being chief among them. But for the 21st century socialist movement moderation seems to be tantamount to treason. We see the logic of semi-theocratic hopefulness regardless of the costs being regurgitated by the postmodernist left. The thinly veiled contempt that Theodore Adorno had for the American working class for caring about bowling, fast cars and TV more than the class war could well be interpreted as Adorno’s anger that the people he was supposed to be fighting for did not share his hopeful Frankfurt School ambitions. Indeed, when the postmodernist left talks about society being nothing more than a power struggle all sorts of violent ends become justified in the hope that they will help society reach he promised land.
This should be a sobering thought for all of us. The logic of the ends justifying the means is not limited to the radical left. Given the fact that the basic principle of forcing people to do X because Y is desirable is widely put into practise in our political system I believe that we run the real risk of brining in an ideology that looks very similar to communism. That will bring equally devastating results. As long as only a tiny few are willing to stand up for the rights of individuals to do as they wish and rely on the beauty of socioeconomic networks as agents of progress rather than resorting to the blunt force of legislation than I see no ideological barrier to retreating back into authoritarianism.