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Horseshoes and Class Consciousness: Part I
This essay is split into two parts: the first part--this part--explains why there is no substantial overlap between fascism and communism. This part is likely to be frustrating for many people for two reasons. First, it says nothing new; ultimately, I'll argue that although there may be some surface similarities between the two, the two ideologies are not substantially similar. Second, it's framed in a kind of academic approach that is...dry and indulgently charitable to a position that, again, I think is ultimately not one that should be taken seriously (a third reason to be frustrated is that, like everything else I write, while it's written in an academic style, it is not academically rigorous). All that is to say that if you want to spare yourself these kinds of frustrations, you can probably skip this first part. However, if you have found yourself thinking that there is some such overlap, take a look.
The second part of the essay is concerned with the importance of class consciousness in avoiding fascism. The claim I defend in that section is that the current failures of neo-liberal capitalism are pushing us closer and closer to a position in which the choice between socialism or fascism will be a serious one again (I mean I think it’s always a serious one, but y’know), and that, crucially, we socialists are in a very bad position to swing that choice in our favor unless we can find some way of creating mass class consciousness. This part of the essay is likely to be frustrating for entirely different reasons, but it has, perhaps, something original to say. If you only read one part of this whole thing, read that part.
Part I: Fascists and Communists
I was having a conversation with a good friend last week (who I hope won't mind me mentioning this) when we got on the topic of reading the works of difficult people. He asked me if I had read Mein Kampf and I said that I'd only read bits and pieces for various history classes in undergrad. He had read it and said it was a terrible experience (and a terrible book), but that he learned three interesting things from it: first, that it's obvious that Hitler was always an antisemite and wasn't shy about expressing it; second, that he was no capitalist and much closer to socialism than he expected; and third, that he wasn't anti-communist because he had some kind of fundamental opposition to centralized planning or redistribution of capital, but because of his nationalism and antisemitism (communism is all about building international solidarity and Jews were pretty active in the party--or at least perceived to be).
The first point is certainly true (those are the parts I'd read for class)--it's almost baffling that people didn't take Hitler seriously given that his rhetoric is explicitly genocidal as early as 1925. The third point also strikes me as essentially correct and I'll return to it in a bit (with a slight adjustment), but it's the second point that I want to discuss here. Now, I think this point is mistaken, but I think the mistake is a pretty natural one and one that I think lends itself to the general belief that communists (and that label is usually extended to socialists) and fascists are two sides of the same coin or two ends of a horseshoe. In other words, the view is that the two ideologies have more similarities than they do differences.
This general view is, I think, not uncommon in the public. Here, for example is an absolutely, mind-numbingly bad article arguing exactly that (Dinesh D’Souza is cited multiple times...). On the face of it, it might not seem terribly implausible. In support of this view the most common claim involves pointing to the fact that both fascism and communism in the 20th century resulted in totalitarian regimes arguing that this must mean that they share some deep ideological commitments. This argument is pretty flimsy since it attributes a common cause on the basis of a common effect. Although this way of reasoning can work in some cases, it is clearly a bad way to reason in generally. As a simple counter example, just consider that winning the lottery and robbing someone both have the effect of enriching a person, but the two causes have nothing in common aside from the effect they produce. The same wet, hacking cough might be produced by either a certain virus or a certain bacteria, but this does not tell us that this virus and bacteria are substantially similar (except, of course, with respect to this particular effect!). Likewise, one might grant that fascism and communism have had the same effect of totalitarianism (or, implausibly, that they must always produce that effect) while still denying that the two views have anything substantially in common. Given that this isn't a generally good way to reason, what would need to be shown is that the inference in question is a good one to make with respect to this case. And that requires a different argument.
[For what it's worth, I think most people who make this argument don't really care about whether the two ideologies are similar. Rather, they just want to make the point that they don't like either view and they usually already make what I called the implausible assumption above that both views necessarily always produce the same effect.]
However, a mover sophisticated claim might be made on the basis of the particular claims that each ideology makes. Consider, for example, the Nazi party's 25 point program which includes such provisions as: " 11. Abolition of unearned (work and labour) incomes. Breaking of rent-slavery...13. the nationalization of all (previous) associated industries (trusts)...14. a division of profits of all heavy industries...15. an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare... 21. outlawing child-labor" These really do look pretty damn similar to Marx and Engels' demands of the Communist Party in 1848 (yes, yes, I know about 80 years separates these two and what may seem progressive in one era can appear as the bare minimum in another, but humor me for a second). Simply put, if both groups stand for nationalization, abolition of rent, redistribution of profit, and the institution of welfare provisions, then could the two be that different? Isn't it plausible, then, that the main difference between the two is merely cosmetic? So, perhaps the claim for significant ideological similarity can be made on the basis that both ideologies take issue with the same things and offer similar solutions to those issues.
Now, I still think this claim is mistaken and that, in fact, the differences between the two make the the two ideologies worlds apart. But this is a more sophisticated claim than the popular one I brought up first, and the apparent overlap between the the two ideologies still warrants some explanation. So here it goes.
Simply put, I think the claim that both ideologies take issues with the same problems is correct; both communists and fascists were (and are), in a certain sense, responding to certain problems of modernity: poverty, concentration of wealth, dangerous work conditions, senseless war, the erosion of certain social roles, the destabilization of traditional values, and, in general, a kind of precarious existence. These problems are genuinely serious ones, so it's not surprising that different political ideologies would want to address them and put forward demands to combat them. In fact, it would be bizarre if they didn't! To ignore these problems would be, in essence, to deny them, and such a denial is the privilege of people who don't have to face them in the first place. There are, in fact, such people who subscribe to these ideologies of ignorance, but these ideologies are certain to be the minority, and are, in general, poor ways to build political movements.
Yet, it should be clear that the identification of a common problem does not entail a common ideology! If it did, then every political movement that takes poverty, war, loss of tradition, etc. (i.e. any political movement that insists on the status quo--that is to say, no political movement given what politics is about) would be identical with every other one. To put the matter another way, I can grant that communism and fascism share a genus on the basis that they share a common concern with certain common identifiable problems, but this does not make them the same species. And to the extent that someone wants to make the former claim (i.e. that fascists and communists are both concerned with the same large problems) without the latter (i.e. they are the same thing) I'm willing to accept the argument.
Still, one might push back and claim that the methods each side proposes to combat the common problem is what makes the ideologies significantly similar. It's the fact that both groups advocate for the nationalization of industry, the end of rent-slavery, the redistribution of profits, and so on that supposedly makes them identical, and not the fact that they identify the same problems. Here we don't end up in a position that collapses every political movement into every other political movement. After all, some movements propose combating inequality by progressive taxation, others by eliminating it altogether, and so on. And, yet, here we have two movements each of which advocates nationalization of industry, a redistribution of wealth, and end to profits from rent, and so on. Isn't this enough to claim that the two ideologies share substantial overlap? Doesn't this make them not only of the same genus but also of the same species, or, if not quite the same species then super close cousins?
This way of looking at the matter is more forceful than the last two under discussion, but I also think it really matters why, under what conditions, and for what purpose the methods are proposed. Consider a crude analogy: suppose that you and I are surgeons who are tasked with saving a patient with a gangrenous leg. We both see the same symptoms, we both recognize the threat to the patient that it poses, and we both propose amputation as a remedy. On the face of it, outside observers might reasonably infer that we share the same views about medicine, intervention, and cures (i.e. that we share a medical ideology). After all, we agree on these things whereas a different surgeon might propose minor surgical intervention (or no intervention at all!), so this makes us similar. However, suppose that you recommend removing the leg because you think that it needs to be done as a last resort to save the patient's life and I want to do it as a means of deterrence to teach him a lesson so that he's very careful with his other leg; or because I think that anytime there's gangrene anywhere in the body, that body part must be removed; or because I think that when gangrene occurs in people that look like this patient, amputation needs to be performed, but otherwise it can be allowed to spread. I hope it's clear in this toy case that despite the fact that we have surface agreements regarding how we diagnose and proceed, that the underlying commitments we have about make our medical ideologies very different (I'm not implying that there are such things as 'medical ideologies', of course). We still differ significantly from those surgeons who don't want to interfere at all, but the similarities we share against them are not sufficient to show a substantial common ground.
Stepping outside of the analogy, we can grant that fascists and communists identify the same symptoms (war, poverty, etc.), and that they might even propose similar methods for dealing with these symptoms (redistribution of wealth, nationalization of industry, etc.), but still insist that this doesn't mean that they share substantially similar ideologies (in the same way that our recommendation to amputate doesn't mean we share substantial medical ideologies). What matters here is not simply the question of whether these similarities are in place, but whether there are important differences as well. And, of course, there are!
First, the explanations for the symptoms that both groups identify differ. Whereas the communist sees the very system of capitalism as the source of the problem. The communist sees war, poverty, inequality, etc. as necessarily caused by capitalism and what capital needs. By contrast, the fascist places the blame on something like a weakening of the nation's spirit (or blood, or racial composition, or whatever other bullshit they appeal to depending on their brand of fascism).
Second, this difference in diagnosis also leads to a difference in ultimate prescriptions for political action. Whereas the communist fights for the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the seizing of the means of production, the fascist seeks the restoration of the weakened spirit. At times, this might mean that the fascist must oppose capital--thus, the fascist might oppose the tendency of capital to move towards internationalism or multiculturalism, but the problem here are those things and not capitalism itself. This is why, at the end of the day, the fascist is generally a friend to capitalism to the extent that capitalism can be harnessed and put for the good of the nation/race/volk in order to restore its strength. Hitler doesn't have a problem with I.G. Farben as long as it's not controlled by Jews and as long as its profits go towards the betterment of "the German people." Communists, by contrast, are not interested in a beneficial and working relationship between private corporations and the nation, but in eliminating those corporations altogether. And they don't care about providing just for the nation--they're interested in creating a world that benefits all workers, irrespective of nationality, blood type, race, or whatever.
Thus, we have a final explanation for why the apparently shared methods or proposals of fascists and communists isn't grounds for suggesting that the two share a common ideology. Even when it comes to something as radical as nationalization of industry, it's clear that the communist proposes the nationalization of industry as a means of seizing and abolishing the capitalist mode of production and the fascist proposes the same thing as a means of making capitalism work for the nation.
This brings me to my friend's third claim: that Hitler wasn't anti-communist because he hates centralized planning or the redistribution of profits, but because communism is inherently international. In light of what has been said, this is claim is, I believe, true. But rather than showing that there was little natural antipathy between communists and fascists, it shows the absolute ideological breach between the two. Nationalism vs. internationalism; a concern with race vs. a concern with all people; a conditional opposition to capitalism vs. an absolute opposition to capitalism are the big differences between the two.
Still, one might argue that this argument concedes too much and that I really have granted the central claim that communists and fascists are closer than a lot of people think they are. I have, after all, granted that they're in the same genus! Perhaps this is all that my friend wanted to stress in saying that Hitler's fascists shared with communists and socialists. Perhaps this is what makes the outlines of the horseshoe.
If that's the case, then I'll bite the bullet since I think it's not enough to draw any serious claims one way or the other; the horseshoe simply comes too cheaply to matter.
If it isn't clear, I'm firmly in the socialist camp and abhor fascism. My interest here has been to argue that the communist is not a fellow traveler with the fascist and that the cited similarities aren't enough to establish that they are. Are there views that share nothing with fascism? Perhaps--but those might entail giving up or taking on other commitments that I don't think should be given up or made. Let me offer one final metaphor: the satanist and the evangelical Christian might both be committed to the the existence of the Devil, but this shared commitment neither makes them sufficiently similar, nor does pointing this out serve as a ground for either to become an atheist.
In saying all this argument I'm not claiming to be offering any startling new insight. It is useful to the extent that it makes dispels some natural interpretation errors, but not much more than that. That being said, what's been said here will be brought in more generally in the second part of this essay where I think there are some interesting upshots.