David R. Henderson  

Nizer on Fascism and Communism

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I didn't know that I would generate such discussion with my previous post about Ethel Rosenberg. Just to clear things up, Bryan Caplan's comment is, of course, right. He was referring to the socialist movement, not individuals, as being "born bad." And for it to be "born bad," there had to be many socialists who were, well, bad. That was really my point, as I made clear in the first paragraph of my post.

On to another aspect of Nizer's book. Nizer, by the way, was a hero of mine when I was a young teenager. At the same cottage in Canada where I read The Implosion Conspiracy two weeks ago, I also read Nizer's My Life in Court when I was about 14. That book, especially the chapter titled, "Reputation: The Libel Case of Quentin Reynolds vs. Westbrook Pegler," got me thinking for a while that I might want to be a lawyer. That was before I discovered economics.

In a section of The Implosion Conspiracy in which he deals with the famous Communist turned anti-Communist Elizabeth Bentley, he writes:

After graduating from Vassar and receiving a master's degree from Columbia University, she had gone to Italy to study at the University of Florence. She became enamored with Fascist philosophy under Mussolini, and joined the university Fascist organization. However, after she returned to the United States, she joined the Communist Party.

Later, of course, she went to the FBI, confessed her role as a top spy for the Soviets, and became a double agent.

What I found interesting in the above passage was the "However." There's really not much difference between Communism and Fascism. Both put the state above the individual and both are totalitarian. But wait. It turns out that Nizer got it too, kind of. Because a couple of paragraphs later he writes:

First, in the phenomenon of interchangeable roles between Fascists and Communists, Mussolini was a radical socialist, before leading the Fascist movement. Hitler professed to be a democratic socialist, and even carried over part of the name to the Nazi leadership principle.

Elizabeth Bentley didn't find the transition from fascism to communism any more difficult. The extreme points of the circle do meet. [DRH comment: I don't think it's a circle: It's a two-dimensional space--one dimension is civil liberties and the other is economic freedom--in which Communism and Fascism are right there on top of each other with almost no civil liberties and almost no economic freedom.] The deadly antagonism of radical and reactionary movements involves more a quest for power than ideology. Their parallelism in authoritarian control and the denial of any consent of those ruled makes all differences in "principle" sheer sophistry. The objective is the same; "A few of us will tell all of you what is good for you."


Obviously, from context, he sees Communism as "radical" and Fascism as "reactionary." In fact, they are both radical, as Bentley, Mussolini, and Hitler understood.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
RPLong writes:

I think it has always been clear among most objective historians that there is little difference between fascism and communism. My take has always been that "fascism" was the word that leftists use to smear rightism as potentially dictatorial. Rightism *is* potentially dictatorial, but the end result is no different than dictatorial leftism.

That's one reason among many that I like Mises' terming fascism "socialism of the German pattern," and communism "socialism of the Russian pattern." It's linguistically a little clunky, but still makes for a great terming of the concepts.

When the ex-Soviet General Walter Krivitsky was introduced to Whittaker Chambers in 1939 he asked him immediately, 'Is the Soviet government a fascist government?'

Chambers response (in 'Witness') was that despite, “…all the emotions that had ever bound me to Communism [which] rose in a final spasm to stop my mouth,” answered, “Yes—the Soviet government is a fascist government.”

Two people who actually lived the nightmare--shortly after that conversation Krivitsky was assassinated by Stalin's agents.

Thucydides writes:

It is interesting that the same districts in Germany and in Italy in which National Socialism and Fascism respectively were strongest, after WW II were strongly communist.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"It's a two-dimensional space..."

No, but two dimensions model reality better than one.

yet another david writes:

Communists= international socialism

Nazis/Fascists = national socialism

Stephen Hicks' excellent, short book, "Nietzsche and the Nazis", makes some of those points.

Mark A. Sadowski writes:

True, while in Italy, Elizabeth Bentley briefly joined a local student Fascist group, the Gruppo Universitate Fascisti. But there's no evidence that her involvement with Fascism went any deeper than that. With the help of her anti-Fascist faculty advisor Mario Casella, she quickly found her true home in a very different part of the political spectrum, and likely was a full fledged Communist well before returning to the United States.

On the other hand Mussolini clearly displayed anti-egalitarian and elitist leanings in his earliest writings. And it was his extreme nationalism which soon led to his split with the Socialist party.

Hitler's views were well known to be rabidly antisemitic, nationalistic and anti-Marxist from the moment he acquired a reputation for rowdy polemics. His professed belief in democratic socialism was a little more than an act of political convenience.

The term "radical", in its political context, began with expressions of political support for a "radical reform" of the UK's electoral system to widen the franchise, and consequently was clearly "leftist" in its original meaning. In contrast the term "reactionary" was originally applied to those who sought to return to a previous state in a society, and thus clearly carried "right wing" connotations, although ironically attempts to roll back the clock frequently require the employment of means which may themselves be considered "radical".

The terms "left" and "right" appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. Thus traditionally, the the main factor dividing the left and right wings in Western Europe has been class. The left seeks social justice through redistributive social and economic policies, while the right supports a strong social hierarchy and the supremacy of certain individuals or groups deemed to be innately superior.

Using these historically accurate descriptions of the political spectrum it is easier to see why Communism and Socialism are on the left and are radical, and why Nazism and Fascism are on the right and are reactionary, as Nazis and Fascists believed in the right of a supposed superior people to dominate while purging society of claimed inferior elements.

So I think it may be claimed with some justification that Bentley's flirtations with right wing reactionarism were extremely shallow, and at core she was a left wing radical. Similarly Mussolini's right wing reactionary beliefs were always incipient and merely waited for the appropriate time to become apparent. And Hitler was a right wing reactionary through and through who paid lip service to left wing labels purely for political gain.

What perplexes me is why some libertarians feel the need to conflate right and left wing totalitarianism, as it clearly serves to obfuscate rather than to clarify the political compass.

Shane L writes:

Interesting point by Mark, there.

Perhaps the important thing is just the revolutionary fervour, the belief that extreme change is necessary and can only be achieved through violence. In that case nearly any ideology could develop a revolutionary wing, and these revolutionaries of different shades would share a common hatred of ordinary society.

I have read of far-left and far-right and Islamist terrorist groups all describing a loathing of modern consumerist society, though for different reasons. For some, maybe there is a deep personal disconnect from society that precedes any political conversion - the communism or fascism or other radical ideology only justifies a prior anger and desire to fight.

RickC writes:

Shane L,

Two words, Eric Hoffer.

And the book would be "The True Believer". Describes what you suspect exactly.

RPLong writes:

Mark A. Sadowski -

Have you ever read Omnipotent Government, and if so, what did you think of its arguments?

Ak Mike writes:

Mr. Sadowski - with respect, your argument that Htler was on the right is incoherent. You describe the origins of left and right as proving that the distinctions implied are class-based. Then you go on to say that Nazis and Fascists believed in the right of "supposed superior people" to dominate.

But you know perfectly well that the supposed superior people were not superior because of their class, but rather because of their race or nationality. Hitler's support came from the lower middle class. He would himself have argued that he favored social justice.

You have attempted to elide this distinction by confusing (deliberately, I think) upper social class, favored by the right, with "superior groups" which have nothing to do with wealth or aristocratic privilege, favored by the fascists.

Mark A. Sadowski writes:

@RPLong,
I have not read it (it is available online), but having glanced at it, it seems to be guilty of precisely the kind of conflation I am concerned about.

@Ak Mike,
On the eve of Hitler's accension to the Chancellorship, in late 1932, Nazi Party membership was disproportionately white collar, self-employed and civil servant. In elections it received little support from the working classes who made up nearly half of the German population. It polled disproportionately well in upper class areas, among doctors and engineers, in small towns, and in rural agrarian areas, and disproportionately poorly in urban industrial areas. It won very little of the unemployed vote, which of course was significant at that time.

It was industrialists such as Albert Voegler, Gustav Krupp, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen and Emile Kirdorf, who provided much of the funding for the Nazi party. And, ultimately, it was a petition sent by a group of prominent industrialists, fearing a left wing takeover of the government, that prompted Hindenburg to offer the Chancellorship to Hitler.

RPLong writes:

Mark -

But what do you think of the arguments contained in the book supporting its claim? That was my real question. I understand that you disagree with its thesis, given that you proposed an entirely different one yourself. I am more interested in why you disagree than the mere fact that you do.

Beyond the simple points in time and space at which these terms first fell into use, upon what else do you make your claim, and in what way does it contradict the theory of Mises et al.?

Mark A. Sadowski writes:

RPLong,
Having only read a small portion of the book I'm not even sure what his argument amounts to other than circular reasoning. He seems to be claiming that all totalitarian forms of government are the same (i.e. bad) because they are totalitarian. That tells me absolutely nothing about the fundamental differences between right and left wing totalitarianism.

Shane L writes:

Thanks RickC, I will try to check it out sometime.

Another good read is Brian Keenan's remarkable An Evil Cradling, describing his four years of abduction by Islamic Jihad in Lebanon. He explores the personalities of his captors, many of whom spouted generic Islamist rhetoric but couldn't answer basic questions about Islam. He even wondered if there was an element of sexual dysfunction among some of them, so disconnected from ordinary (to him) relationships with women and obsessed with the idea that Westerners must be having wild sexual experiences. They questioned his sexual experiences with revulsion and fascination.

One bizarre phenomenon was his observation that young Lebanese Islamists dressed like Rambo, which was in the cinemas at that time in the 1980s:

"Many of them wore a headband tied and knotted at the side above the ear, just as the character in the movie had done.

It was a curious paradox that this Rambo figure, this all-American hero, was the stereotype which these young Arab revolutionaries had adopted. They had taken on the cult figure of the Great Satan they so despised and who they claimed was responsible for all the evil in the world."

The romance of being a warrior and an underdog was a big part of their motivation, so anti-American young men could ape an American action hero.

Ken B writes:

@Mark A Sadowski:
Your argument is that the left favours group L while the right favours group R. I think there are holes in that claim (as crossovers show), but let's grant it ad arguendo. The point some of us make is that is a minor difference considering the important similarities they share, especially the willingness to kill and enslave for the benefit of the collective, however defined, and the willingness to stomp on anyone outside the definition of the collective, be he Jew or kulak.

Imagine roving bands of people who eat children descending upon a town. One group eats them from the head down and the other from the feet up. Some of us think calling them all cannibals makes good sense. To be consistent I think you must resist this conflation.

It's all a matter of what you consider important.

Cryptomys writes:

So were Franco and Pinochet radicals or reactionaries?

The fact of the matter is that the Nazis sat on the right side of the German Reichstag. The socialist elements of the Nazi Party (e.g. Ernst Rohm, the Strasser brothers) were purged in the Night of the Long Knives.

UnlearningEcon writes:

"There's really not much difference between Communism and Fascism. Both put the state above the individual and both are totalitarian."

Communism as a concept was never really about central planning, that was something that occurred in a specific historical context. The ultimate aim is no state at all.

Matt Mitchell writes:

"It's a two-dimensional space--one dimension is civil liberties and the other is economic freedom--in which Communism and Fascism are right there on top of each other with almost no civil liberties and almost no economic freedom." This calls for an animated graph!: http://neighborhoodeffects.mercatus.org/2011/12/22/down-with-one-dimensional-politics/

Gene writes:

I'll accede to Mark's distinctions re the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority and how it differed from the left's doctrines. But taking a step back and looking again, what I see are two doctrines that claim a commitment to exalting the interests of a "chosen people" (whether defined racially or ideologically/economically) and using violence and murder to wipe out opponents of those chosen people. The fact that the sorts of people who rise to power in both those systems have much in common only strengthens my view that the two ideologies do not have much daylight between them.

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