04/20/2017

Fascism And Communism Were Two Peas In A Pod

Michael de Sapio, Foundation for Economic Education

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini have become, for many of us today, mere Hollywood villains – generic personifications of evil or (in Mussolini's case) buffoonish authoritarianism. Yet their ideologies were rooted in specific philosophical ideas – ideas which had many respectable adherents in their day.

Dictator Fanboys

One person who understands this is Jonah Goldberg, author of the 2007 book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Ten years on, the book still holds up. Goldberg argues, provocatively, that fascism shared roots in common with what we call modern liberalism or progressivism.

People often argue over whether Hitler and Mussolini were “right wing” or “left wing.” More to the point is that both men's ideologies had roots in the Progressive movement of the turn of the 20th century.

The Progressive movement was closely tied to the philosophy of Pragmatism: the belief that thought is a tool for action and change. In contrast to the ancient and medieval philosophers, for whom philosophy was the contemplation of reality, the Progressives were animated by the desire to mold reality and to harness knowledge for social betterment. Many in the vanguard of progressive thought initially were enamored of Mussolini and even Hitler, considering their dictatorships a useful “social experiment.”

H.G. Wells, the popular science fiction writer, was one. In a number of speeches and books he praised the militaristic social mobilization in the new fascist regimes: an entire society moving as a single unit under the rule of a Nietzschean superman.

Complete state control of all aspects of life was seen as highly pragmatic and scientific by many. Nationalism and militarism – elements commonly associated with the Right – were actually key components of the Progressive Era, flourishing in particular under President Woodrow Wilson, as Goldberg documents.

Ideological Twins

Popular wisdom holds that Fascism and Communism were diametrical opposites. Actually, the two ideologies were (and are) so similar that they had to define themselves in opposition to each other in order to survive. At the very least, both were socialistic in origin: Mussolini was immersed in socialism by his father, and the name of Hitler's party – National Socialist German Workers' Party – speaks for itself.

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In the 1950s, students started gathering in Paris. They were reading Karl Marx. They were forming book clubs. They were trying to come up with a better version of society. One that moved away from the division of labor. One that moved away from the capitalism in the big cities that they so despised. ... One of those students would change his name to Pol Pot. He and his colleagues formed a new political party, a takeover in Cambodia. They called themsevles the Khmer Rouge. ... Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, one out of four people in that country died in less than four years. 

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