Reporters ask questions. That’s what they do. Sometimes they ask meaningful and tough questions; sometimes not so much. The answers people give are frequently insightful or, as the case may be, sometimes strange.
In December of 2014 Jonathan Bernier, a goalie playing for the Maple Leafs, was asked his opinion on the importance of Nelson Mandela:
Reporter: Just wanted to ask you, I mean, obviously Nelson Mandela [was] one of the most significant historical figures of the twentieth century. What knowledge or awareness did you have of him growing up or when did you learn of him?
Bernier: Well, obviously, growing up, you uh, he’s one of the most known athletes, uh, in the world and, uh, lot of impact in any kind of sport that he did, and uh…that I, you know, even playing hockey, everyone knows him from being the type of person he was off the ice and on the ice and so, it’s unfortunate that he passed away a year ago, but, um, he changed a lot while he was with us and he’s a tremendous guy.
Here’s a link to the interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrAWrsb13bU
After watching the interview I felt sorry for Bernier…and then I started feeling sorry for society. We are surrounded by a lot of misinformed and ignorant people. In this case, the reporter exposed one of Bernier’s blind spots (and to be fair we all have them). Some blind spots are harmless but others are problematic, i.e. in order to preserve democracy citizens need to be informed and educated.
We’ve all seen it on television: reporters asking people random questions on the street testing the public’s knowledge about particular topics. In 2008 I recall watching television interviews of reporters asking people their opinion about President Obama. Obama was accused by critics of being a fascist and by others a communist. People were asked to explain what fascism was and nobody could. Likewise people were asked to explain what communism was. Again, nobody could provide a cogent answer.
The answer from one person was telling: “I don’t know what fascism is I just know it’s bad and it’s what Obama is.” Such is the power of the meme: for this reason I wrote this article. I wanted to provide the public with information related to the context, principles and nuances of communism and fascism. If for no other reason, people can read this article, learn a few technical terms, and then cast more philosophically accurate aspersions at politicians.
What is Fascism?
Fascism emerged formally as an ideology in the early 19th century. Fascism is more or less a response of conservative thinkers to the perceived excesses of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason (1650-1800), placed all traditional understanding of life, morality and the world in to question; to that end thinkers like France’s Voltaire, England’s John Locke, and Scotland’s David Hume, all encouraged people to possess a questioning attitude (especially towards power). The result of this promotion was both an intellectual revolution and two political revolutions—the American (1776) and the French (1789)—sweeping away traditional authority.
Nineteenth century conservative thinkers like France’s Joseph de Maistre responded to the Enlightenment by doing two things: firstly, he used his significant skill as a writer to oppose democracy because representative systems of government gave power to people who neither deserved it nor understood how to wield it. The only people worthy of ruling, argued de Maistre, was the elite—an aristocratic and educated one. Secondly, de Maistre was a proto-fascist: as such he, like all fascists from Gabriele d’Annunzio to Benito Mussolini or from Houston Stewart Chamberlain to Adolf Hitler, held an idealized view of the past: the present was chaotic and disorderly while the past was a simple and pure time.
Taken at face value simplicity and purity appear to be virtues; however, in their 20th century expression simplicity took the form of anti-intellectualism (think Nuremberg rallies and book burnings) and purity took the form of master race theory being taught in German classrooms giving birth to a generation of mass murderers (think Holocaust). Lastly, fascists did not embrace skepticism or the questioning attitude promoted by the vast majority of the Enlightenment’s philosophers; on the contrary, proto-fascists and fascists alike hated the disorder resulting from a society unwilling to give unqualified support of its elites while likewise despising the intellectual and cultural disorder unleashed by the Age of Reason.
Fascism & Mass Movements
Fascism is always tied to a mass movement. In 1933 Germany was ruled by the National Socialists (Nazis). The Nazi movement stressed the glorification of the state and the importance of racial purity. For this reason the Nazis sought to control every aspect of German society—education, politics, the arts, the media and, of course, the economy. Reinforcing the Nazi’s hold over the minds of Germans was the pseudo-science of ethnology. Ethnologists borrowed H. S. Chamberlain’s term “Aryan” to refer to the German people—a mythologized group of apparently genetically superior people originally from Northern India who eventually migrated and settled, as coincidence would have it, in Central Europe (aka Germany).
Not all fascists are racists like the Nazis. For example, Italian fascists in the 1920s were more or less ultra-nationalists wanting to establish law and order in Italy. Italy became a country in 1861 and from its inception suffered from constant political division. There were so many political parties—some representing a Catholic bloc, some socialist, others fascist, and still others a liberal worldview—that no party could establish a majority in the Parliament of Italy. Italy actually continues to suffer from a similar problem with plurality in the present day. Again, Italian fascists, far from being racists or promoters of silly master race theories, simply wanted to rein in the divisive forces unleashed by democracy in order to make Italy strong again.
Fascism & Freedom
Although fascists are not democratic they typically allow people a small measure of freedom; that is, a citizen is free so long as freedom does not interfere with the greater aims of the state. For example, in Germany Aryans could marry anyone who was an Aryan but they were forbidden to marry a non-Aryan (to preserve racial purity).
(By the way “racial purity” is not a scientific concept whatsoever. There is no such thing as “pure genes” either; moreover, race doesn’t exist objectively; rather, it is a historically conditioned and created idea. In the case of genes: there simply exists genetic variation suggesting no particular group of people is better or superior or weaker or inferior than another; every person belongs to a single human genome. In modern biology, some scientists argue there’s no human genome but a universal genome to which all life on earth belongs. This is a minority view but it is gaining more and more adherents as our understanding of genetics improves over time. I digress.)
In the context of the 21st century, some political theorists like Sheldon Wolin argue the control corporations exercise over the political decision making process in the United States is proof positive of America being a fascist state (an expression of so-called “inverted totalitarianism”). Although counter-intuitive at a certain level, Wolin argues freedom can co-exist with fascism provided citizens remain incapable of effectively challenging the power of either the government or the corporations. For this reason fascism can be an insidious thing; you can evolve in to it. When it comes to communism, historically speaking, it is born out of something more obvious: violent revolution.
Fascism & the Individual
In the case of fascist Italy or Germany, individuals do not own themselves but exist as indistinguishable from the state. In this sense, fascism owes a lot of its inspiration from the Catholic Church: the Church likewise treated the faithful as a “corporate whole” who belonged to one body and who were required to unquestioningly accept Rome’s authority; that is not to say the Catholic Church was fascist; however, fascists like Church authorities desired to recreate an orderly past, a time before democracy (or a time before The Fall)—a period when the people were one and did not challenge either the Church or the king (or in the case of the Church, God).
In reality no such period ever existed. Kings like Henry II (1133-1189 AD) of England successfully challenged Rome by pressuring the Vatican to appoint the bishops he wanted; moreover, Peter Abelard (1079-1142 AD) a French thinker wrote Sic et Non (literally “Yes or No”) effectively placing in to question the wisdom of unquestioningly accepting a number of the Church’s best-established doctrines. Yet, fascists do not fret over whether or not their view of the past is accurate; they are worried about creating a view of the past that supports their narrative in the present which justifies future action. For this reason businessman turned politician Donald Trump appeals to many people (forming the basis of a mass movement in the United States). Trump argues America “doesn’t win any more” implying America always won (a quick study of the War of 1812 should disabuse the Americans of this view); and he promises that if he’s made president he’ll solve all the country’s problems which, interestingly, have a lot to do with America’s longstanding racial issues.
Fascism & Authoritarianism
Fascist governments are authoritarian by nature: decisions are not made through consensus building or parliamentary debates. Rather, fascist states dictate to the people what can or cannot be done. The assumption is the average person doesn’t know what is good for them. Therefore, people need a benevolent (infallible) leader to make important decisions for them. Fascists by and large hate the disorder perceived to be inherent in democracies. In particular, the Nazis rejected any notions of entertaining pluralism (that there’s more than one valid way of looking at the world)—a situation where minorities maintain their unique identity independent of the majority. To the Nazis all of the people must agree both in their thinking and in their genes for order to be preserved.
Fascism & the Internal Threat
Another feature common to most fascist states—from Germany, Italy, “Communist” China or even to the United States—the greatest threat to society comes from within the country. Thus, fascist states seek to create and promote national unity at all costs. In Germany, this meant purging “undesirable” or “racially questionable” elements from the body politic. In the case of fascists in Italy, they sought to bring order to a country paralyzed by political disorder by sweeping away democracy altogether and establishing a dictatorship. In China it means rejecting any notion of electing anyone outside of the Communist Party to a position of meaningful influence; and in the United States, a softer, subtler form of fascism has led to the creation of identity cards for Hispanics in the state of Arizona, a concerted effort to deny gay people legal equality, and to the passage of the most intrusive piece of legislation passed by any government—democratic or otherwise— in history: the Patriot Act. An act designed to give the government unfettered access to the digital communications of Americans. This act also suspends habeaus corpus among other rights.
What is Communism?
During the Industrial Revolution (1750-1900 AD), a new industrial society emerged generating enormous wealth. Wealth, unsurprisingly, was not distributed equitably or enjoyed equally. Those who owned businesses profited significantly while laborers received low wages, lived in squalor and eked out a miserable existence in growing, overcrowded cities.
Karl Marx, the father of communist theory, developed the political philosophy of communism in response to the social, economic and political problems he believed were created by the Industrial Revolution. With exception most communists are motivated by ending the exploitation of workers by the business class. In order to end the exploitation, every citizen must be made economically (and therefore politically) equal by eliminating social class. According to Marx history was best understood as a conflict between classes (or those that have versus those that have not). In the Communist Manifesto Marx describes a struggle between the Proletariat (workers) and the Bourgeoisie (business class). Marx sought to end this perpetual conflict by establishing a “classless society” based upon the common ownership of the “means of production.”
In a communist state, the government abolishes the ownership of private property. Marx believed if no single person possessed more property than another—but shared everything in common—then no one would have the power to exploit others. Marx considered capitalism a great social evil: the business class exploited the fact workers needed money in order to live; and since thousands of workers competed for the same jobs the employer could pay workers whatever they wanted (contributing to exploitation).
Compounding the problem was the fact workers, not employers, were the ones who did all the actual work while employers reaped all of the benefits. With that said, Marx did not adequately take in to account the relative risk run by entrepreneurs when setting up a business, i.e. if a business failed the investor lost everything. Yet, in the aggregate, there were more workers than there were capitalists; and, as such, the risk assumed by an individual entrepreneur or that entrepreneur’s right to make a profit from his business did not outweigh the injustice of that same entrepreneur exploiting vulnerable workers.
Marx believed communism was a genuine political alternative to representative democracy. According to Marx there were at least two problems with representative institutions: the first problem was they pitted the different social classes against one another (as exemplified by the situation of both Italy’s Parliament in the 1910-20s or the Congress of the United States in the 2000s). According to Marx competing demands meant the needs of the people as a whole were never met. Instead, elites would continue to exploit the resultant division to maintain the status-quo.
The second problem was the fact that in democracies, monarchies, etc. the wealthy elite, though small in number, exercised a disproportionate amount of influence over the decision making process. In a communist society (at least in theory), decision-making is supposed to be genuinely democratic; that is, there is no elite (there isn’t even a central government or legislature). Instead, decisions are made at the local or regional level through workers councils (called soviets in the Russian context); and membership on these councils wasn’t based on education or class but was rotational—everyone was given a turn to shape the decision making process. A good idea…until it’s Jonathan Bernier’s turn to chair meetings. I digress, again.
Also, Marx had little confidence in the capacity of democracies like Britain or the United States to truly represent the interests of the people as a whole. The elites of these two countries used their economic (and therefore political) influence to push for the invasion of other countries, etc. in pursuit of profit for their social class. For example, Great Britain required soldiers (“wage earners”) from Canada to fight the Boers in 1899 for control of gold mines discovered in the Transvaal State; and in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq to guarantee its strategic access to Iraqi oil.
In both cases, the 99% fought, bled and died for the 1%. Communist states, in principle, do not go to war with one another over profit. On the contrary, they make common cause with one another because a worker in Germany is a brother to a worker in France, Britain, Canada or the United States. For this reason Karl Marx famously exclaimed, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” With that said, the Soviet Union invaded all sorts of countries, e.g. Afghanistan, Hungary, Poland, etc. etc.
So much for principles…
In the second part of the article, I provide a technical and detailed contrast of fascism with communism.
Communists are “international” in their outlook while fascists are “nationalist,” e.g. Nazi Germany was aggressive to neighboring states like Poland because the Germans believed themselves a “master nation” entitled to rule over so-called “slave states.”
Communist states, like the Soviet Union (Russia), were in principle governed by the working class (a class transcending borders, language or ethnicity). Communists were “international” in their outlook because regardless of the country where the working class was located they all shared the same experience of being exploited and the need to overthrow the capitalists. In short, workers from every country shared a common cause: defeat the Bourgeoisie.
Fascists aim at exclusion not inclusion, e.g. German fascists excluded those who did not belong to the “master race.” Italian fascists excluded non-Italians because Mussolini was attempting to reinvent the Roman Empire. Simply stated fascists tend to look inwards to protect their local community from corrupting influences. However, communists from country to country to country are joined by a common sentiment: the enemy are not workers from other countries but capitalist exploiters outside of the communist’s borders. In other words, communists look outside to find their enemies.
Both fascism and communism are authoritarian, e.g. decision-making power is not shared but centralized around a dictator; that is, Hitler ruling Germany and Stalin ruling the Soviet Union. People not belonging to either the Nazi or Communist governing parties had no decision-making power. However, members of these two ruling parties received benefits/privileges non-members did not. In the communist context, class was supposed to be abolished; yet, members of the Communist Party definitely enjoyed material benefits the “average Vlad” did not.
Fascists want to build a strong state. In Germany, this was accomplished by ruling the people through the Führerprinzip or “leadership principle.” The Führer’s word was regarded “above all written law.” Basically, whatever Hitler said had to be obeyed. Therefore, all government policies, decisions, ministries, etc. operated in complete and absolute obedience to Hitler.
By contrast authority in a communist society is supposed to be decentralized (democratic). In theory, authority was exercised by a collection of workers councils from all around the country. In practice, however, authority in both the Soviet Union and Communist China was exercised in basically the same way it was in Germany: decisions were centralized, made by a dictator, and enforced by a ruling party through a combination of the military and secret police. The average citizen had no say in decisions directly affecting them.
Economically speaking, fascist states allow citizens freedoms unavailable to those living under communism. For instance, in Nazi Germany you could own your own home, factory or land. In the Soviet Union, the government abolished the practice of private ownership of property. The government owned everything. Taken at face value fascism would appear to offer opportunities unavailable to communists; however, upon closer inspection the appearance of freedom in Germany is deceiving, e.g. while you could own a factory and even keep profits for yourself the Nazi Party told you what to produce, how much to produce, when to produce, how much to pay workers, etc. In the Soviet Union, the government did the exact same thing—telling people what to produce, etc.—but all profits went directly to the Communist Party before being distributed, in principle, to the people.
4. The State
Fascist states typically glorify war; therefore, a strong government is considered necessary to produce a strong, disciplined people. There is no room for catering to a plurality of public needs in a fascist society. In principle, authoritarianism in a communist system is considered a necessary but short-term evil, e.g. while fascists make a point of permanently establishing a strong state by comparison communists actually want the central government to eventually “wither away” and society run ultimately be managed by a series of workers councils.
The problem with communism, or any ideology for that matter, is it reflects an idealized version of reality. Marx’s claim the state would eventually disappear spontaneously out of the goodness of the people is not only without historical precedent, it also ignores the realities of human nature: human beings are selfish, egocentric, ambitious, etc. and anyone who is in a position of power will, if not limited by either law or police, will not only allow the state to disappear but they will also do whatever they can to continue benefiting as an individual from their position of privilege, e.g. In the Soviet Union, communists overthrew the tsar (1917) to establish the ideal workers society Marx envisioned; yet, the Communist Party far from establishing a classless society simply became the new ruling class; that is, the exploitation of the Proletariat by the capitalists ended and a new exploitative relationship emerged, an ironic one, with the Communist Party’s members exploitation of the Russian worker.
5. Ideological Issues
Both fascism and communism are ideologies. An ideology is a philosophical and systematic way of looking at the world. As worldviews go, neither fascism nor communism actually reflect how the world actually works, how people think, or how they behave.
This is a problem.
Specifically, communists and fascists attempt to build new societies based on how the world ought to be or how people ought to behave instead of on how the world actually works. For instance, communists assume people are either capable of cooperation or competition but never both. In reality, people are capable of doing both when and if reason and not fear/intimidation forms the basis of consensus building. For his part Marx did not anticipate elites in Canada, Britain or the United States would voluntarily share their wealth or weaken their control by allowing the passage of legislation protecting workers, giving people universal healthcare, or providing workers with unemployment insurance. Marx did not anticipate this because his ideology blinded him to the possibility of a change in attitudes over time. The reality is people are complex and capable of both cooperation, competition, and everything in between (see the work of Peter Kropotkin for more on the cooperation-competition dichotomy). Ideologies which fail to take complexity in to account—and this includes the world’s most dominant ideology, free market fundamentalism—are doomed to fail because they encourage the development of an incomplete understanding of the world and humankind.
Those ideologies or systems which take an accurate view of human nature’s complexity in to account are longer lasting, e.g. the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy has existed uninterrupted since 1689. Democracies, unlike fascist or communist states, encourage citizens to practice toleration, compromise, consensus building and pluralism; citizens are also involved in decision making which means the public views decisions coming from government as legitimate; moreover, democratic governments do not try to stamp out differences of opinion or force people to agree with one another. Instead, the role of the government is simply to preserve the peace; that is, democratic governments try to constructively manage disagreement making sure parties involved respect the peace and the rule of law. By contrast communists and fascists make extensive use of a secret police, concentration camps, intimidation, murder, and terror, etc. to force their citizens to “behave” and “agree” with official party policies and principles.
6. Anti-Democratic Sentiments
Fascists attack other organizations or groups attempting to influence the country’s affairs. Fascists despise unions because the labor movement influences a country’s economic and political life without being subordinate (obedient) to the aims of the state; this means labor unions can, in principle, provide a healthy counter-balance to governments which tend over time to become dominated by the political right (especially so if the right is left unchecked). In Nazi Germany, the individual was simply expected to obey—disagreement, disobedience, freedom, etc. were considered contrary to the principle of building the perfect society. Thus, fascists sacrifice liberalism and freedom in order to achieve goals like “racial purity” or the “conquest” of weak neighboring countries.
In principle, communist countries are supposed to be democratic. Yet, in practice they tend to be anti-democratic, e.g. you do not build the perfect society through parliamentary debates. You build it through terror, fear and intimidation. The problem confronting any authoritarian-minded political party is most people genuinely prefer living in freedom to living under a dictatorship (if given the choice). Therefore, in a fascist society it is believed necessary to rule the people by decree and remove (or kill) those elements of society who oppose destiny. In the context of communism, Karl Marx assures us once the enemies of the movement are destroyed the government mystically “withers away.”
7. Racism & Xenophobia
Fascists believe their country is in crisis or “rotting from within” because of the presence of “impure” people/groups. To address this crisis fascists attack enemies of the country’s “true identity” (usually members of an ethnic, racial or religious minority). The current rash of xenophobia in Canada towards Muslims (2015), Syrians in particular, demonstrates the sobering prospect that fascism (however latent) exists in many of us and is never far from the surface. Also, fascists consider any citizen who speaks out against attacks on minorities as enemies. For this reason people who support the humanitarian aims of bringing Syrian refugees to Canada are wrongly labelled as either sympathetic or active “supporters of terrorism.” (People are just so intellectually lazy sometimes.) Fascists feel a sense of urgency when it comes to purifying society; it cannot be achieved fast enough.
Communists likewise desire purity; yet, the purity they are after isn’t racial. Instead, they want citizens to be ideologically pure. In other words, the Communist Party in Russia wanted the “thinking” of their citizens to perfectly line up with the teachings of communist theorists like Marx or Vladimir Lenin. Perhaps the greatest expression of this pathological desire for ideological purity came when the Soviet Union liberated its soldiers from prisoner of war camps in Germany during World War II. Instead of being freed and joining their comrades in the Red Army, these former prisoners were sent to new prisons in Russia, i.e. they could not be trusted because they had seen what it was like out of the Soviet Union and they might spread heretical ideas in the USSR. Communists, like fascists, do not tolerate criticism of the government. Individuals do not have the right to freedom of speech or even freedom of conscience. You are expected to give yourself entirely over to the communist cause (a cause which requires great sacrifice now with promises to pay off at some indeterminate time in the future—a future that never seems to arrive by the way).
Fascists view minorities as the enemy. Communists, on the other hand, insist “big business” and capitalism are the real enemy. Fascists deal with minorities in one of the following ways, e.g. they’ll expel them; if this doesn’t work they’ll imprison them (the current “for profit” prison system in America conveniently deals with the disenfranchised African American population); and if imprisonment doesn’t work you can always kill them. Communists, Marx in particular, argued the extermination of the Bourgeoisie might be necessary; however, communists do not have to kill the Bourgeoisie in order to establish communism. Instead, the wealthy as a distinct class can be destroyed by simply taking their businesses from them and abolishing private property. In short, communists seek to turn the wealthy elite (and middle class) into “wage earners” like everyone else.
In principle fascism focuses on what a person intrinsically is or is not while communism focuses its attention simply on a person’s social role. Both communism and fascism have some serious drawbacks (yeah think?); but at least it can be said of communism that one doesn’t have to resort to mass murder to “purify” society (although Josef Stalin did frequently resort to this, e.g. Holodomor (1932-1933), the Great Purge (1937-1939) or the Katyn Massacre (1941)). Again, in principle (so many principles), you can change a person’s social role without having to first destroy the person. The difference between fascism and communism is fundamental: communism seeks to develop everyone while fascism excludes or eliminates all who don’t belong to the “ideal.”
Well that was quite a mouth full. I wonder at what point a reporter asking me a question like “what is fascism” would leave? So next time a reporter asks you a question about either fascism or democracy or communism, maybe you’ll sound a little smarter than a goalie or probably anyone playing for (or supporting) the Maple Leafs.