A Note on Communism and Fascism

In this post, OnParkStreet cited Walter Russell Mead on the similarity between communism and fascism. I totally agree that there is much similarity between these systems–in their theory, in their practical effects, and in the psychology of their supporters. I also believe, however, that there are some significant differences between communism and fascism, and I discussed some of these in the comment thread at OnParkStreet’s post.

Yesterday I picked up a book called Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, by Mark Mazower, which contains quite a bit of information and analysis relevant to this discusion.

Here’s one interesting excerpt:

In fact, fascist ideology was almost wilfully obscure on economics, partly because the leadership needed to keep both Left and Right wings of the movement happy, but partly too because it was not very interested in the subject, seeing economics as a means to an end. Hitler wanted to use “the production technique of private enterprise in line with the ideas of the common good under state control,” a formula which satisfied everyone and no one. Fascism was strongly anti-communist but also anti-plutocratic. It was opposed to international finance–often condemned as “parasitic” and “cosmopolitan”–but in favor of national “production.” Did this make it socialist? Perhaps in a special, airily non-class sense. “Our socialism is a socialism of heroes, of manliness,” declared Goebbels, who came from the left wing of the Party.

A “socialism of heroes” implied endless hymns to the Worker…But fascism stressed manual labour rather than machinery and technology as in the USSR or the USA. Fascist men wielded scythes, they did not drive tractors. “I am a socialist,” Hitler stated, because it appears to me incomprehensible to nurse and handle a machine with care but to allow the most noble representatives of labour, the people, to decay.” Posters emphasized craftsmen and artisans–a look backwards which perhaps helped draw labour away from its contemporary strong class connotations.. Even motorway workers–according to Nazi publicity brochures–were pictured above the caption: “We plough the eternal earth.”

17 thoughts on “A Note on Communism and Fascism”

  1. I see only two fundamental issues that separate communism and fascism.

    1) Fascism is strongly nationalist, while communism is internationalist.

    Fascist nationalism is by necessity fairly narrow, in that it must emphasize racial and superficial cultural distinctiveness. Any fascist appeal to religious or deeper cultural traditions runs the risk of backfiring, in that fascist control of a society requires upending many of those same traditions. Witness the Nazis, who advocated Aryan mastery while simultaneously legitimizing a revival of Norse paganism and various forms of moral and sexual licentiousness.

    Communism, in contrast, requires abandoning all aspects of familial, national, cultural, and religious loyalty, in favor of the grand world-wide triumph of the Workers.

    2) Fascism controls the economy and the industrial base by proxy, whereas communism controls them directly.

    While both fascism and communism insist that the economy be run for the benefit of the “people” (in the form of the state), fascism retains at least some residue of a market and the profit motive. Communism removes any trace of the existing corporate structure and replaces it with something completely new, run on ideological rather than economic principles.

    The take-away from these differences is that fascism has several practical “advantages” over communism. While both ideologies are evil and destructive, communism is more self-destructive and counter to human nature.

    Communists themselves recognize the need for a New Soviet Man if their system is going succeed, whereas fascists can and do advertise their ideology as a return to Blood and Soil and the greatness of old. While both require that their citizens repress their own consciences and habits, fascists at least offer a replacement that satisfies the baser instincts.

    Likewise, fascists can retain at least some residue of the principles that allow material well-being, and thereby avoid or at least delay killing the golden goose that underpins their power.

    In some absurd sense, we should be grateful that the cold war was fought against communism. We never had to beat them, and still don’t. The only question was how many people would suffer and die under communism before it collapsed under its own weight.

    Hitler held out against Europe, Russia, and the US for years. If fascism had ever gained any sort of world-wide presence, it might have been a very rough ride.

  2. Nazi Germany was far more dangerous, in terms of its intents and abilities, than Soviet Russia. I think FDR made essentially the right choice, to side with Stalin, disgusting as that was, to finish off Hitler, and then deal with the Soviets slowly and without direct confrontation. Our alliance with Stalin also kept him in the war and discouraged him from making a new accommodation with the Nazis, which he flirted with in 1943-44.

    You also can’t judge Fascist economics by the German example; the Nazis did not control German very long or very thoroughly before the start of war, only six years, and didn’t really have the time or full control to create their ideal economic system. Italy is a better example, where they tried to implement “corporatism” (which has nothing to do with corporations in the Anglo-American sense) more thoroughly in accordance with Fascist theory. Some of the entities they founded are still large entities in the Italian economy today. Of course the Fascists never controlled prewar Italy thoroughly either; they ruled in a coalition with the traditionalists and the monarchists, even though Mussolini never trusted the King or his supporters, and vice versa. The rump Italian Social Republic of 1943-45 (RSI, or “Salo Republic”, from its capital) was closer to the Fascist ideal, but dealing with wartime contingencies, they never really got too implement the system they wanted.

    Franco Spain also tried to implement corporatist economics after the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, maybe the most complete test of them, but they were an economic disaster and were abandoned in favor of a fairly ordinary European mixed economy in the early 1950s, which gradually improved the economic situation. Some of the big projects started under corporatism remain; if you remember the hydroelectric dam scenes at the beginning and end of the 1960s Dr. Zhivago film, they were filmed at a dam in Spain which had been one such Falangist project. Although not identical, Communism and Fascism both loved huge infrastructure projects.

  3. For those who haven’t already seen this quote…Sebastian Haffner, who grew up in Germany between the wars, summarized the points of affinity between the “reds” and the “browns” as follows:

    “They both came from the ‘youth movement’ and both thought in terms of leagues. They were both anti-bourgeois and anti-individualistic. Both had an ideal of ‘community’ and ‘community spirit’. For both, jazz music, fashion magazines…in other words the world of glamour and ‘easy come, easy go’, were a red rag. Both had a secret liking for terror, in a more humanistic garb for the one, more nationalistic for the other. As similar views make for similar faces, they both had a certain stiff, thin-lipped, humourless expression and, incidentally, the greatest respect for each other.”

    Indeed, many points of similarity. I think most Americans probably fail to understand the degree to which Naziism was a *youth movement*.

    The points of difference, though, are real…and I think it’s important to understand that today’s “progressive” movement shares a certain amount of commonality with fascism as well as its more-commonly-discussed influence by communism.

  4. Just finished the biography of Robert Heinlein this weekend (volume 1 anyway). During the 1930s Heinlein was very active politically for Upton Sinclair in California. Heinlein supported Sinclair’s socialist views and was a big fan of H. G. Wells Fabian socialism. However, he was in the trenches of state politics trying to stop the local Communists from taking over the liberal Democratic party. He even rose to be a member of the California Democratic Central Committee and attended the convention where Rooseveldt was nominated to his third term. He moved to a more formal libertarian stance only in the 1950s.

    In other words, this wasn’t a theoritical issue for him – he was the man in the arena. Oddly, one of his big complaints was that any Communist involvement or involvement was a sure way to LOSE an election!

    Yet Heinlein clearly recognized the possibility of socialism degenerating into dictatorship and totalitarianism. He wrote a friend an insightful letter comparing communinism, fasism and nazism and well understood that they were one and the same under the other dressing.

    Odd that we’re still have to revisit this issue 80 years later – it is obvious to anyone looking at their behaviors clearly and without preconceptions.

  5. Witness the Nazis, who advocated Aryan mastery while simultaneously legitimizing a revival of Norse paganism and various forms of moral and sexual licentiousness.

    My impression of the Nazis was that they were prudish, “kinder, kuche, kirche.” Of course, many of Hitler’s early disciples were perverts and gays but many of them were purged in the 30s.

    I’m reading Roberts’ “A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900” and recently read the section on how much the British tried to keep Mussolini out of the war, even agonizing over sanctions because of his invasion of Abyssinia. Somewhere, I have a photo of a map of the “new Roman Empire,” including Abyssinia, that I took a few years ago. It was a carving in several colors of marble on a wall in Italy. Mussolini was very popular, even making Cole Porters’s song “You’re the Top.”

  6. My impression of the Nazis was that they were prudish, “kinder, kuche, kirche.”

    What they were mainly was hypocritical. Superficially traditionalist, but lacking any underlying moral base.

    This Wikipedia section mentions the kinds of things I had in mind. One could argue, of course, that that sort of behavior had more to do with the nature of war than it did with anything specific to the Third Reich.

  7. Oh, far be it from me to defend the morals of Nazis but I do think they tended to be prudish, even if hypocritical. Hitler the vegetarian, etc. The real public immorality began with the First World War and specifically with the actions of the Germans as they invaded Belgium. They seem to have anticipated resistance and so they began reprisals before there was any sign of a reason for them. Here is where they became “Huns.”

    Small examples; Sir William Osler and a number of well known medical history scholars were preparing for the 400th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth with a ceremony at the library of the University of Louvain where the only velum copy of his De Humani Corporis Fabrica was kept. The Germans destroyed the university and the book during the invasion although the Belgians had quickly surrendered.

    I should add that the wood blocks from which it was printed were destroyed in WWII in the bombing of Munich so we share some blame for the loss of these artifacts.

    Germans were very popular in the US before the war, especially in the midwest. My uncle told me there were portraits of the Kaiser in Chicago public schools when he attended about 1900. I believe they were the largest single nationality of immigrants until the 20th century. Lincoln carefully campaigned among the Germans of St Louis in 1860 and his Attorney General, Edward Bates, represented the Missouri Germans in the cabinet. It was World War I that poisoned the German image here and in England. Had the Germans avoided Belgium and the Schlieffen Plan, I wonder how the war might have turned out. Belgium and the U boats brought us in. I wonder if Britain would have gone to war if the Channel Ports had been left alone.

    Of course, Wilhelm II was hostile to his cousins and picked a fight with the High Seas Fleet construction. He was also as anti-Semetic as Hitler, encouraging him in his plans for the Jews. The Kaiser has been quoted to the effect that Jews and mosquitoes had no redeeming virtues. It is my opinion that, without Wilhelm II, there would have been no Hitler and maybe no Stalin or Lenin. Russia was much further along in modernization than has been acknowledged.

  8. “The Nazis did not, as their foreign admirers contend, enforce price control within a market economy. With them price control was only one device within the frame of an all-around system of central planning. In the Nazi economy there was no question of private initiative and free enterprise. All production activities were directed by the Reichswirtschaftsministerium. No enterprise was free to deviate in the conduct of its operations from the orders issued by the government. Price control was only a device in the complex of innumerable decrees and orders regulating the minutest details of every business activity and precisely fixing every individual’s tasks on the one hand and his income and standard of living on the other.

    What made it difficult for many people to grasp the very nature of the Nazi economic system was the fact that the Nazis did not expropriate the entrepreneurs and capitalists openly and that they did not adopt the principle of income equality which the Bolshevists espoused in the first years of Soviet rule and discarded only later. Yet the Nazis removed the bourgeois completely from control. Those entrepreneurs who were neither Jewish nor suspect of liberal and pacifist leanings retained their positions in the economic structure. But they were virtually merely salaried civil servants bound to comply unconditionally with the orders of their superiors, the bureaucrats of the Reich and the Nazi party.”

    -Ludwig von Mises

  9. One could quibble about the differences between the Nazis and the Soviets ad infinitum. It is pointless. They were more alike than different, Like my son and my daughters, they had different characteristics and histories, yet a stranger looking at them will know instantly that they are from the same family.

    The most concise definition of liberalism (the classic variety not what modern Democrats believe) is the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

    None of that is acceptable to a Nazi or a Communist (or to any other Socialist or “Progressive”). They disdained the notion of rights, they believed in the primacy of the State. Their real dispute was not left vs. right. It was Germany v Russia.

    The notion that the Nazis were right wing was a canard of Soviet propaganda, and they won the war. The truth of the matter is that the real right wing — the landowners, the church, the medieval institutions were destroyed by WW I. By the end of the 1920s in Germany, it was Nazis vs Communists. The liberals were hated by both sides.

  10. Here is a double paradox:
    fascists+nazis were nationalists who ended up destroying their nations; and communists were blinded by economic ideas that destroyed their economy.
    In both cases, some of their greatest crimes backfired against them and ultimately led to their destruction: wars of aggression for the fascists/nazis, collectivization of agriculture for the Soviet commies.

  11. Robert Schwartz: “The notion that the Nazis were right wing was a canard of Soviet propaganda, and they won the war.”

    You are factually correct on both counts, but I beg to disagree with the implication. The French knew better than anybody what “right” and “left” mean; the Germans and the Italians knew better than anybody what fascism/nazism means; and there were not that many commies in America and Britain. Under these circumstances, it is very hard for me to believe that Soviet propaganda could completely turn around Western opinion, 1984-style.

    The fact is that there were 2 other winners of ww2, whose governments had an interest in placing themselves at the opposite end of the “spectrum” wrt fascism/nazism: the USA and (after Churchill lost to Attlee) Britain. Also note that Mussolini referred to fascism as “right-wing” ** before either Stalin or the US Democrats referred to themselves as “left-wing” (to the best of my knowledge).

    ** NB: only in passing, and making a clear distinction between himself and the “old right”. See The Doctrine of Fascism, which apparently was ghost-written by G Gentile, but I am sure that Mussolini read it through before signing it.

  12. Snorri..”fascists+nazis were nationalists who ended up destroying their nations; and communists were blinded by economic ideas that destroyed their economy”

    Nicely put.

  13. “and there were not that many commies in America and Britain. Under these circumstances, it is very hard for me to believe that Soviet propaganda could completely turn around Western opinion, 1984-style.”

    But, what commies there were, were concentrated in intellectual circles in New York and Hollywood, and in Academia. They have won Gramsci’s “Long March Through the Institutions”.

    Furthermore most Americans, had no real idea about what the right was in 19th Century Europe, particularly France. America had no peasantry, no France profonde, where the peasants, embedded in millennial tradition speak patois, and listen to the priest. America had no established Roman Church, preaching its authority and inveighing against liberalism. Those were pillars of the traditional order that was the lode star of the 19th century right.

    In that world there was a right, but there were two lefts. One was the liberal left, who believed in the tenets of liberalism (expounded in the Declaration of Independence). Then there was the radical left, urban workers who hated the traditional order and the new liberal order, and the “intellectuals”, the chattering classes who used their bastions in Academia and the Media to spread their anti-Liberal doctrine (which they derived from the German idealism of Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche).

    Nostalgia for the traditional order was a doomed program as industrialization and urbanization ate away at it through out the 19th Century. The rest died in the trenches during the Great War.

    The political movements of the the inter-war years, Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, derived their ideology from the radical left (all of their leaders were influenced by Georges Sorel), were extremely anti-Liberal, and embraced state control of the economy. Nationalism and anti-semitism were also major parts of their witches’ brew. The idea that they differed from each other in some linear way is purely reductionist and profoundly misleading.

  14. “But, what commies there were, were concentrated in intellectual circles in New York and Hollywood, and in Academia. They have won Gramsci’s “Long March Through the Institutions”.”

    Yes, there was this factor too, but I see it as clearly distinct from Soviet propaganda. The single most important post-ww2 American propagandist was probably Richard Hofstadter, who bamboozled the Western world into thinking that anti-racist libertarians are really the same as racist statists. He was not [anymore] a commie, let alone a Stalinist, afaik.
    Basically there was a convergence of interests between Soviet propaganda, US Democratic propaganda, and the US “left-wing” intelligentsia: they all wanted to place themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum wrt fascism, partly to whitewash their earlier links to fascism/nazism.

  15. Thanks for picking up on the thread of the comments in that blog post, DF. This conversation is fascinating, and, frankly, way over my head. But I’m learning. It’s nice to read Sejo’s experiences with Italian politics.

    – Madhu

  16. The other thing worth mentioning, regarding “left” and “right”, is that the Nazis and the commies were direct competitors in Germany. In that context, the Nazis (being nationalists) were to the right of the commies. That they were to the left of US democracy was not important in that context.

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