The success of Marine Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential election has the global left resorting to its usual exaggerations and dire predictions of a fascist resurgence. As happened with the progressive smears of Donald Trump, Le Pen’s similar appeals to patriotism, national identity, and the need to defend the nation’s culture and interests are immediately turned into sinister dog-whistles for the crypto-fascists, racist hordes just waiting for the Great Leader to start the pogroms and fill the gulags.
One hundred days into Trump’s administration, of course, nothing has happened that comes even close to beginning a fascist transformation of America. But the persistent phenomenon of the eternal fascist threat raises old questions about and other failed collectivists political ideologies.
Why is “fascism” or “right-wing” an epithet, but “communist” or “left-wing” isn’t? Why do the media, even those considered conservative, use a phrase like “extreme right” or “hard right,” but seldom use “extreme left” or “hard left”? Why is Le Pen’s National Front regularly described with such epithets, but Communist Parties or radical Green Parties rarely are? And why is there the vaguely honorific cliché “a man of the left,” but not the equivalent “a man of the right”?
In short, how has an ideology whose butcher’s bill is twice as large as fascism’s managed to stay acceptable? How do progressives in America like Bernie Sanders boast of honeymooning in the Soviet Union, but do not pay a political price for admiring a regime that killed more innocents than Hitler? How can a police-state like Cuba, which imprisons and murders and impoverishes its own people, continue to attract starry-eyed European and American progressives who at home loudly proclaim their concern for human rights and freedom and equality? Why are tee-shirts that sport images of mass murderers like Mao or thugs like Che considered chic, while Hitler’s or Mussolini’s likeness is verboten? Why in Europe can you wave the hammer-and-sickle flag of the defunct Soviet Union, but the swastika is forbidden by law? Why can the New York Times write a headline reading, “When Communism Inspired Americans,” when we will never, ever see anywhere a story about fascism “inspiring” Americans?
Or how is it that, as Martin Amis writes,
Everyone knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkutlag and Solovestky. Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinsky. Everybody knows of the six million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the six million of the terror-famine.
And why do there still exist legal Communist Parties in the West, and a superpower like China that still identifies itself as communist, but Nazism is a despised fringe cult that gets attention only because it’s a useful political demon for the left? If murderous tyranny is our standard for condemning and ostracizing Nazism, why isn’t it equally used to judge and proscribe the most murderous tyranny in human history?
To explain this persistent double standard, start with the dishonest contrast most people accept between communism and fascism. These two ideologies are generally considered polar opposites, when in fact they were both versions of the same collectivist, totalitarian hatred of liberal democracy, individual rights, political freedom, and free enterprise. If you made a Venn diagram comprising the ideologies of fascism, Nazism, and communism, you could see how much more those regimes had in common with each other than they ever did with the liberal democracies that fought and destroyed them: torture, gulags, censorship, show-trials, reeducation camps, engineered famines, secret police, political control of the economy, and charismatic messianic leaders, to name the most obvious overlaps.
That’s why the smears of Trump and his supporters as fascists are glaringly hypocritical. If we want to play pin-the-fascist-tail-on-the-political party, the Progressive Donks are more suitable targets than Republicans. Just take the “messianic leader” that is central to both fascism and communism. Is Donald Trump anywhere near as messianic a figure as Barack Obama was? Can anyone find Republican praise of Trump that matches the leg-tingling encomia of Obama indulged by the media? Would any conservative say something so patently moronic and groveling as what a SFGate columnist said in 2008? Obama “is a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve.” Doesn’t that remind you of the sort of cringing flattery that the party faithful showered on Hitler and Mussolini?
Or how about shutting down free speech, an iconic feature of Nazism with its public book-burnings and party-line newspapers like the Völkischer Beobachter or Der Stürmer. Isn’t it strange that punks calling themselves “anti-fascists” are similarly using violence and intimidation to silence those who disagree with them? Aren’t they two-bit versions of Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Stormtroopers? Their fanatic intolerance reminds me of Karl Popper’s anecdote about a young Nazi he attempted to reason with. “You want to argue? I don’t argue, I shoot,” he answered.
These are just a few of the similarities between fascism and progressivism of the sort that Jonah Goldberg documented in Liberal Fascism. But such things are alien to most Republicans. They want a fighter on their behalf and a defender of the Constitution, not a messiah to worship. They are stanch defenders of everybody’s right to speak, and seldom run in masked packs with weapons to silence their opponents.
There are two reasons for the continuing mystery of this affection for a murderous ideology. One is, as many commentators pointed out decades ago, communism was and is a political religion, a secular substitute for a discarded Christianity. Historian Michael Burleigh details the similarities:
It is relatively easy to transpose some of the key terms from the Judeo-Christian heritage to Marxism: “consciousness” (soul), “comrades” (faithful), “capitalist” (sinner), “devils” (counter-revolutionary), “proletariat” (chosen people) and “classless society” (paradise). The ruling classes were also going to face a revolutionary form of “Last Judgement” … But there were far deeper and unacknowledged correspondences, including nostalgia for a lost oneness and the beliefs that time was linear … , that the achievement of higher consciousness brought salvation, and that history was progressing with its meaning and purpose evident to the discerning, knowledgeable vanguard.
Seeing leftist ideology as a debased religion explains the stubborn resistance to facts, and the passionate clinging to worn-out dogmas that give a leftist’s life meaning and mark him out as one of the saved. It also explains why so many on the left are rank hypocrites, enjoying lives of comfort and affluence even as they decry “income inequality” and “corporate greed,” and want the rich to “pay their fair share.” They are like the televangelist hustler who preaches against adultery on Sunday morning after he’s fornicated with a parishioner’s wife on Saturday night. Just preach the politically correct gospel, and the progressive’s hypocrisy will be ignored.
The second reason is that Marxism claimed to be a science, “the science of real men and their historical development,” as his collaborator and financier Engels put it. Thus Marxism tapped into the momentous development of the 19th and 20th centuries––the belief that human behavior, society, and history could be understood as precisely and predictably as physics or mathematics. This scientism gave communism the authority and glamour of real science’s spectacular successes in understanding nature and harnessing its powers to create new technologies that improved human life immeasurably. If we can create steamships and railroads and telegraphs, why not the workers’ paradise of equality, peace, and communal harmony? We can, comrades, if we accept Marx’s “laws of historical development” as proven facts rather than crackpot philosophy.
Communism thus was “modern”: “scientific,” “universal,” “internationalist,” and moving the human race ever “forward,” to recall Obama’s 2012 reelection slogan, to the social and political utopia. As long as an elite of “scientists” were empowered to apply their new knowledge to human affairs, they could create the heaven-on-earth of absolute equality and social justice. Today’s progressives are motivated by the same questionable assumptions, and that same uncritical faith in “science” accounts for their soft spot for communism despite its horrendous record of tyranny, torture, and murder.
Fascism, especially Nazism, was profoundly anti-modern. It was exclusionary and particularistic, the boons of its ideology reserved for the unique “Folk” or race. This Folk defined itself in terms of a mythic ancient “Aryan” identity and a fabricated “Teutonic” past, and it preached a glorious destiny that called for the Folk’s eventual triumph over lesser races. The great irony, of course, is that much of Nazi ideology was influenced by the same Darwinist applications to social life that created the eugenics movement and “scientific racism,” and in that sense was shaped by scientism as much as progressivism has been.
But conveniently ignoring this kinship, today’s progressives interpret any belief in national identity or any love for one’s own ways and traditions to be “reactionary,” “xenophobic,” and “racist,” a dangerous manifestation of incipient fascism. In this way progressives demonize their political enemies and promote their transnational, internationalist ideology that calls for greater centralization and concentration of power in the hands of elite technocrats, and greater government intrusion into civil society, business, and private life in order to create “social justice” –– goals redolent of historical fascism.
In other words, irrational beliefs, gratifying myths, and the craving for higher meaning and the social status that comes from being the champions of “progress” and “science”––as we saw in last week’s fatuous “March for Science”––have allowed a murderous ideology to keep its respectable place in our culture and politics. Meanwhile “fascism” has been drained of any historical meaning, the lessons of its horrendous crimes lost in a crude epithet. Once more the self-proclaimed party of “reason” and “objectivity” reveals itself to be an incoherent and intolerant cult.