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Two Sides of the Same Coin

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Mini Teaser: Communism and fascism, cousins in disrepute.

by Author(s): Joshua Muravchik

A. James Gregor, The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

When, in her famous article "Dictatorships and Double Standards", Jeane Kirkpatrick emphasized the distinction between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, she was accused of seeking to excuse the misdeeds of right-wing regimes. In fact, she was only invoking a taxonomy that had been widely employed in academia as recently as the 1950s and 1960s but had since fallen into disfavor. More precisely, it had been driven from general academic discourse on the grounds that it was too polemical. The concept "totalitarian", which grouped communist and fascist regimes in a single category, was said to be a Cold War throwback, gratuitously smearing the far Left with the discredit belonging to the far Right.

A. James Gregor, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, has now taken Kirkpatrick's point a step further. Not only can communism and fascism be twinned, he argues, but they are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. In 1979 Gregor published Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism. This masterful reconstruction of Mussolini's evolution from Marxist leader of Italian socialism to avatar of fascism evoked a response quite similar to the one that greeted Kirkpatrick's writing. "Gregor's admiration for Mussolini's coherent convictions and intellectual integrity" is "complete", raged Dennis Mack Smith in the New York Review of Books.

In truth, Gregor was no more an apologist for Mussolini than Kirkpatrick was for right-wing dictators. What Gregor had done was merely to show that Mussolini's fascist doctrine had evolved in a series of logical steps from his earlier Marxist convictions. To those for whom the term "Marxism" holds happy connotations, this may sound like praise of Mussolini, but that was scarcely what Gregor intended.

In his new book, Gregor approaches the same topic from the opposite direction, proposing to use "Mussolini's Fascism as a paradigmatic instance of what revolution in our time might be taken to mean." Why not, he asks the reader, look upon communism as a form of fascism?

To sustain this proposition, Gregor marshals a variety of evidence and argument. To begin with, he defines fascism as a creed possessing the following characteristics: a leadership principle; a hegemonic party; large-scale state intervention in the economy; extensive control over education, communication and social life; nationalism, chauvinism and aggressiveness; militarization of the economy; invocation of an ethic of obedience and sacrifice; the service of a national mission; and the restoration of lost territory as part of a comprehensive policy of return to national grandeur. Apply these hallmarks to the former USSR, the People's Republic of China, Vietnam, North Korea or Cuba, and the fit is almost perfect, except perhaps not all of these regimes invoked a glorious national past.

Where did Gregor's definition come from? A bit wickedly, he reveals that he derived it from standard Soviet sources on fascism. Nor does his mischief end there. As a second buttress for his thesis, Gregor presents a lengthy exhumation of the diatribes exchanged when communists fell out among themselves. He shows that time and again they claimed that their erstwhile comrades had become "fascists." When the Sino-Soviet split occurred, "Soviet Marxists discerned elements of fascism in the political system that took shape under the ministrations of Mao Zedong, and Chinese Marxists saw fascism in the developments of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union." The Soviet publicist Fedor Burlatsky decried "Mao's cruelty . . . the cruelty of fuehrerism", while in the Beijing Review, Chang Chien described the USSR as a "fascist dictatorship" under the "signboard of socialism."

In still a third line of argument, Gregor returns to his earlier work on Mussolini, recalling that the theoretical emendation at the heart of Il Duce's transition was the substitution of nation for class. "Like you", said Mussolini to the Bolsheviks, "we consider necessary a centralized and unitary state which imposes iron discipline on all persons, with this difference, that you reach this conclusion by way of the concept of class, and we by way of the concept of nation." Gregor points out that this substitution was neither unique nor original. An early exemplar, he says, was Moses Hess. Hess was a member of the young Marx's circle of Hegelians, who may have been the first to tutor Marx in the idea of socialism. Hess, though, eventually forsook socialism for Jewish nationalism, and became one of the earliest exponents of modern Zionism.

Subsequently, many other socialists came to appreciate the salience of national identity. Often the result was an admixture of patriotism in their ideology, despite Marx and Engels' insistence that "the working man has no country." Gregor shows that such "national socialist" thinkers plowed the ground for emerging fascist movements in countries such as Italy and France well before Hitler left his indelible imprimatur on the term.

While the distinction between class and nation as organizing principles was supposedly what rendered communism unlike fascism, Gregor says the distinction eroded within the communist world itself. He invokes, for example, the crumbling Soviet Union in the days of Gorbachev:

"With the increasing irrelevance of Marxism and Marxism-Leninism, 'Eurasianism', 'Russophilism', statism, elitism, irredentism, empire, and authoritarianism all became ideologically relevant again in the Soviet Union. Once again, as in the time before the Bolshevik revolution, intellectual journals were filled with discussions of authoritarianism, nationalism, and empire, of cosmic destiny, and of human will and human heroism. There were increasing appeals to the 'traditional Russian constants' of narodnost, sobornost, dukhovnost, and derzhavnost -- conjuring up visions of the historic Volk, united in organic communion, undergoing transfiguration through conflict under the governance of a transformative 'magnificent State.'"

This spirit found expression not merely in the voice of such fringe types as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but in the view of the man who took over as chief of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov. Gregor writes:

"Ziuganov has consistently argued that Stalin, at the close of the Second World War, was prepared to abandon traditional Marxism-Leninism and undertake a 'philosophical renewal' of the 'official ideology of the Soviet Union.' Stalin sought, according to Ziuganov, to 'create an effective "ideology of patriotism" . . . [as] a dependable philosophical basis for the . . . enormous Soviet State.' Love of the Motherland would substitute itself for 'class warfare', for all Russians would be fused in the fire of patriotism."

For the capstone to the argument about national socialism, Gregor turns his attention to communist China. Mussolini's fascist Marxism rested on the claim that Italy, undeveloped and downtrodden, was in some sense the "proletariat" of nations. Likewise, says Gregor, the Chinese communist revolution has been much more about national redemption than class struggle. Despite all the Marxist lingo, Chinese communist doctrine insists that the definition of a proletarian is anyone who adheres to "Mao Zedong thought." And with the advent of Deng Xiaoping's reforms, private enterprise now accounts for the bulk of the economy in communist China. With that change, says Gregor, "the distinctions between generic fascism and Chinese Marxism-Leninism have become increasingly threadbare."

All of this is quite clever, but is it persuasive? Gregor's arguments are fresh and irreverent. His examples are widely drawn and ingeniously deployed. On many specific points he is telling, but on the overarching thesis, less so. The mutual denunciations among communists who call each other fascists are amusing to read, but they carry very little evidentiary weight since communists are often indifferent to the degree of truth of their own statements. To them, words are merely weapons: the term "fascist" is an epithet that can be directed at the villain of the moment, whoever he might be. Thus, in the Comintern's radical "third period" (the late 1920s and early 1930s), social democrats were branded "social fascists", but when Hitler's menace to the USSR called forth a moderate era of "united fronts", they became allies and their fascist traits miraculously disappeared.

Gregor's thesis also flies in the face of chronology. Mussolini took power five years after Lenin. Lenin's system, moreover, spawned many duplicates, some imposed by the long arm of the Kremlin, others the product of domestic forces. Mussolini's system, by contrast, had few, if any, successful imitators. The regimes of Hitler, Franco and even Peron are frequently classified as "fascist", but many serious students see more differences than similarities among them. Given that communism came earlier and possessed a more consistent character, why choose fascism as the paradigm?

As the 1937 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences entry on fascism, written during the system's heyday, put it: "It is difficult to isolate by abstract analysis the distinctive feature of Fascism." Gregor offers a list of defining characteristics drawn from Soviet sources, and elsewhere in the book he provides other lists. But the features are invariably drawn broadly. Mussolini's system was mostly improvised, and it rested on theoretical foundations that were meager compared to those of Marxism-Leninism. Lenin may have been an opportunist in tactics, but he elaborated a fairly clear doctrine, entailing state ownership and a vanguard party ruling in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Moreover, many other states labeled themselves communist, providing at least one compelling basis by which we can identify communist systems. No state other than Italy ever called itself fascist.

Yet even if his thesis is not ultimately persuasive, Gregor's polemical thrust deserves applause. Those who sought to banish the term "totalitarian" from academic discourse were right that the term was morally freighted. But it was also illuminating. The similarities of communist, Nazi and fascist regimes could be described clearly, and so could the features that distinguished all of them from less intrusive kinds of dictatorship. Was it unfair to associate communism with Nazism? Perhaps. But no more unfair than associating fascism with Nazism. In truth, the objections to the term "totalitarian" rested on the assumption that only the right-wing versions carried an inherent moral stain.

The hypocrisy of those who insist on treating communism with scrupulous detachment but who rarely express the same delicacy toward fascism is what has apparently motivated Gregor to devise a model that allows him to illustrate what the two systems have in common and how they are historically connected. One need not accept the paradigm to see the great empirical and moral truth in this.

Essay Types: Essay