Despite the fact that some commentators on the left themselves recognise that parallels to Nazism and Fascism are overwrought, hardly a day goes by without some link being made between populism, Brexit, concerns over immigration, or conservative views in general and the fascism of Nazi Germany. To make such a connection is extreme and deranged but it derives from a mindset that cannot conceive any view other than its own as being morally acceptable.
What are the roots of this mindset? The intellectual heritage of the left can be traced back to the Jacobins of the French Revolution and the idea that the injustice of inequality lies in the abuse of power by established institutions. For the French Marxist philosopher Michael Foucault, civil order represented “structures of domination” from which the oppressed victims need to be liberated. The world is therefore seen in terms of power and struggle. Every aspect of society must therefore be remade to achieve the goals of social justice and liberty.
The use of language has been transformed by the proponents of this vision. From the slogans of the French Revolution, through the multiplicity of Marxist terms for heretics and opponents, to the modern phenomena of political correctness and control of speech, there has been a determined effort to use language to assert power over reality. This is the “Newspeak” portrayed by George Orwell in his chilling vision of a fictitious totalitarian state. Language is no longer to describe reality, it is, in the words of Francoise Thom, “to protect ideology from the malicious attacks of real things”. Of course, these “things” include human individuals who are attached to customs and institutions and have an embarrassing tendency, given the chance, to reject what their betters have devised for them. Clinton’s deplorables, and “too stupid to vote” Brexit supporters take note.
A cunning feature of Marxism that has influenced leftist thinking ever since is the distinction made between ideology and science. Marx attempted to prove that his ideology was in fact a science. In contrast, bourgeois theories such as the rule of law, separation of powers, and property rights were nothing to do with truth or science but naked attempts to maintain the privileges of existing social structures. So by definition the opponents of the left are both ideological and immoral. Which is one of the reasons that people on the conservative side of politics find it hard to discover a leftist willing to debate rationally with them without enduring either ad-hominem attacks or endless arguments about language. Indeed, a virtue is made on the left of not having friendly relations with political opponents. Gone is the normal dialogue between people who may not share the same goals or desires but seek a tentative and ever changing cooperation and compromise in our shared space. This day to day problem solving and search for tentative agreement is the spring of our tradition of English common law and parliamentary institutions. It is this that has been lost sight of by the kind of intellectuals that are attracted by the idea of a “scientifically” planned society, and especially the idea that they will be in charge of it.
As a consequence there has always been a need on the left for its leaders to be both resolute and intellectual. The intellectual prowess of some of these leaders is however a myth concealing second-rate thinking, Lenin being an example. Marx himself was clearly a profound thinker. However, the criticisms of his writings that questioned many aspects of his thought remain unanswered by recent thinkers of the left. The veneer of intellectualism must be maintained. In recent times, Gramsci has taught that revolutionary practice and theoretical correctness are identical. The intellectual with “correct” views is the true agent of revolution and it follows that they have the right to rule over the merely prejudiced populace. Any opposing view carries the burden of proof but is more likely to be dismissed as ignorant, backward or prejudiced. In fact, the starker and more shocking the immoral nature of opponents the better. This where the polemical use of the term “fascism” has been so useful to the left.
It is a remarkable achievement of leftist propaganda to portray communism and fascism as polar opposites. This goes hand in hand with the notion of a spectrum of political opinion from “far left” all the way to “far right”. The identification of the real evil of recent European history, the fascism of Nazi Germany, as “far right” means that anyone on the right is tainted and possibly tempted by xenophobia and bigotry. How was this identification achieved? Gramsci no doubt made a contribution to this by having died in the struggle against Italian fascism. Conveniently, the further left you are, the further you are from the greatest evil of the age. The moral danger for anyone on the right is that they might easily slip into fascist views. That this is nonsense is not difficult to demonstrate both from history and from political philosophy, but rational arguments are unlikely to shift the left’s need for this bete-noire. However, one can only try.
There is a clear structural similarity between fascism and communism both in theory and in practice. Both are inimical to parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, property rights, and free speech. Both attempted to create a state bound together under a single party rule. Both eliminated all opposition. Both took control of media and education. Both instituted a social order directly controlled by government and without the institutions of civil society. Both attempted to bring every aspect of the life of their citizens under political control. There are no doubt clear differences between communism and fascism, and the link with nationalism is one of these. However, to portray the two as being at opposite ends of a political spectrum is a monumental act of intellectual dishonesty.
The real opposite to these two “isms” is the politics of negotiation and compromise, a politics that eschews any notion of an ideal or utopian society. It involves an acceptance that we inherit much from the past in traditions, institutions, and moral habits. It also involves an acceptance that things are not ideal and may well need to be adapted and changed but that this should be gradual, incremental and based on compromise. It is not however revolutionary or driven by an ideology that defines how society should be and therefore justifying the wholesale destruction of the kind of society we have been up to now.
The true fascists of today are those that oppose this tentative and non-revolutionary kind of politics. We find it in the elitism that has shown its ugly face in the caricaturing of vast swathes of Western electorates as ignorant and bigoted and unworthy of the right to vote. We find it in the assumption that it is given to intellectuals and experts to decide on our behalf and the attempts to isolate the work of government from the annoying irruptions of democratic will. Hence the proliferation of government quangos and the layers of EU unaccountable bureaucracy. We find it in the abuse and the policing of language and hence of thought itself. There has been a resurgence of interest in Hannah Arendt’s classic, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, but for entirely the wrong reasons. It is not Trump, Brexit, Hungarian or Polish nationalism that threatens to resurrect totalitarianism. These are rather responses to the creeping fascism and totalitarianism represented by the politics of the left.
The left needs fascism. It needs it in order to caricature and stigmatise those on the right. It needs it to provide a smoke screen to obscure its own temptations and the intent of those in its midst with a harder ideological edge. The left is not anti-fascist. It is in grave danger of becoming precisely that which it purports to oppose.