Speaking of Totalitarianism: Linking Fascism and Communism

Another issue that Lagrou takes a close look at in The Legacy of Nazi Occupation is the effective move by anti-Communist forces in the early postwar period (especially from 1947 on) to build a close tie between the Communist enemy and the strong existing anti-Fascist sentiment in the aftermath of the war. This is none other than the development of theories on and propaganda about Totalitarianism. The most famous theoretician of totalitarianism which conflates fascism with communism is Hannah Arendt. I blogged earlier some notes on an article about her by Samantha Power. I’m sure we can all think of other places we have seen this at work, whether it is our own textbooks, the speeches of Truman, or the essays of George Orwell. It is one of the fundamental theoretical building blocks of the deeply flawed binary between the “free world” and the Communist evil empire we struggled against in the Cold War—one which was and continues to be selectively applied as political expedience requires.

Lagrou focuses in on the specific ways this link is found in the postwar resistance/veteran associations, the associations of wartime victims and generally how, “the memory of Nazi persecution became the battle horse of anti-Communism.” (269) Lagrou notes that the early postwar anti-fascist organizations and the anti-totalitarian memories of the cold war shared one major feature in common from the start:

“They systematically obscured the specificity of the genocide. The anti-fascist discourse assimilated all victims of fascism with anti-fascists. The genocide was not recognised as distinct from the overall anti-fascist martyrdom….The anti-totalitarian discourse was more exclusive; its freedom fighters were mostly recruited from nationalist resistance circles, who did not admit victims of the genocide to their clubs. Above all, not only did it obscure the genocide, but genocide was strictly incompatible with its aim. An assimilation betwen Nazi persecution and the Gulag essentially required the omission of genocide.” (285)

In other words, in the Cold War anti-totalitarian rhetoric, the general oppression and the concentration camps (for forced labor, PoWs, and Jews – all mashed together in one category) of Nazi occupation were placed in parallel to the Gulag as its central and most powerful symbol. However, as Lagrou and I’m sure others show, however, this is requires forgetting the specificity of the holocaust—the memory of which resists all attempts to be dragged into a simple Fascism=Communism equation.

Of course, the anti-totalitarian discourse of our own side in the Cold War certainly shares parallels to a similarly reductive discourses related to fascism and imperialism that were popular under Communism. However, it might be worth reminding ourselves of the interesting early postwar genesis and historical consequences of some the most compelling ideas of recent generations. In this specific case, the rapid shift to a dominant anti-totalitarian ideology equating fascism with communism greatly served the radicalization of anti-communism in Western Europe and as Lagrou shows throughout his book, had devastating consequences for Communist resistance fighters or other Communist victims of Nazi persecution repatriated after the war.

11 thoughts on “Speaking of Totalitarianism: Linking Fascism and Communism”

  1. I don’t think anybody’s saying Fascism=Communism. And as somebody who used to reflexively bristle when people talked about the two as equal evils, I’m here to tell you that those people are right. The whole discourse has been poisoned for decades by the sad history of American anti-Communism and the inevitable Hegelian antithesis of anti-anti-Communism (to which I used to nail my flag), but the fact is that Communism killed more people than Nazism and Stalin was just as evil (however you want to measure evil) as Hitler. He was even given to fits of murderous anti-Semitism (though not as dedicated as Hitler — who could be?); if he hadn’t died (probably helped along) when he did, the “doctors’ plot” purge he was planning would certainly have caused many Jewish deaths and many more lives ruined. I feel for the Communist victims of Nazi persecution, most of whom doubtless had little to do directly with the mass killings and repression, but how do you distinguish them from the many Germans who were members of the Nazi Party for various reasons but were not directly involved with Nazi mass killings? To support evil is to support evil, and I’ve read enough disingenuous attempts to hide or explain away the truth of Communist repression (calling Jean-Paul Sartre! hello, Edgar Snow!) to leave me with a permanent sickish feeling. If you think the genocide of Jews puts Nazi evil in a special category, I won’t argue with you, but if you think that somehow lessens the evil of Communism, I will.

  2. I have not read the book so I can’t say anything for sure, but for a critical reading, I think one needs to think over what each term, totalitarianis, facism, nazism and communism, means.

    For one thing, totalitarianism as a term is a later invention compared to Facism, and you could almost say that it was invented in the first place to band together Communism and Nazism/Facism, as opposites to “freedom” (= “individualism” = “liberalism” = “capitalism”). “Totalitarianism” was chosen, even though there already was the term “authoritarianism,” because by using such a “threatening” name it could be used aptly to discredit anything that had tints of”socialism” which is exactly what does.

    Two, Facism as a term in itself is not Totalitarianism and not even Nazism, though they are often deemed the same. The main difference being that Facism and Nazism is that the former does not neccessarily imply racism and genocide, which is central to the later. The author seems to cry out that it was wrong to forget the genocide by branding communism and facism together, but he seems to be missing the point that racism and genocide are only componets of Nazism, not Facism.

    So, Nazism can be deemed a extreme racist brand of Facism, and Totalitarianism a overarching demeaning term for Nazism, Facism and Communism. The mixing and equating of Communism and Nazism was a result of, actually the purpose of, the invention and usuage of the term Totalitarianism. So it is rather naive to critize anti-totalitarian movements for equating/confusing Communism and Nazism when that was the underlying purpose from the beginning.

  3. oh .. there’s no way to edit my comments? …

    reading your post again, it seems, my comment is what the author is trying to say, though since I didnt read the book I am not sure how he differenciated each term, and what his underlying concern is. Is he mourning the fact that the Holocaust was belittled by the anti-totalitarianism rhetoric, or is lamenting the fact that communism was unfairly villanizied into an evil as dark as Nazism?

  4. I would highly recommend the writings of one of my favourite bloggers on this subject – Lenin’s Tomb. For example, this on the meaning of fascism and totalitarianism or this on Islamism and totalitarianism.

    Personally I think this needs to be approached from a more thoroughly materialist perspective. Bandying about simplistic comparisons between Communist regimes and fascist ones ignores different historical paths and contexts. And most of the time it ends up returning to an extremely crude idealist view of history (ie ‘Communism [the idea] caused the deaths of millions of people’).

    My own take is that what we usually describe as ‘totalitarianism’ refers to statized forms of capitalism, which usually develop at times when the left is weakened or defeated and/or as strategies for dealing with capitalist economic crises. These have take the form of the fascist regimes which grew out of the ruling classes’ emergency strategy for dealing with the growing power of left (Germany, Italy, Spain). They have also taken the form of the state capitalist regimes of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe etc which grew out of the defeat of socialist forces in Russia, Western Europe and China in the 1920s. Of course there is another form of statized capitalism which we could possibly (at a stretch) place into the category of totalitarianism – that is the third world developmental state capitalism that has been so common in Asia. Park Chung-hee being one of its finest exponents.

  5. Personally I think this needs to be approached from a more thoroughly materialist perspective. Bandying about simplistic comparisons between Communist regimes and fascist ones ignores different historical paths and contexts. And most of the time it ends up returning to an extremely crude idealist view of history (ie ‘Communism [the idea] caused the deaths of millions of people’).

    I’m agog — I haven’t seen such a fine specimen of Marxist doublethink in years. Ah, the glories of the “thoroughly materialist perspective”! (“Materialist,” of course, meaning “ignoring the material world in favor of the shining heights of Marxist theory.) And by all means, let us take into account “different historical paths and contexts” so we do not make the mistake of “simplistic comparisons between Communist regimes and fascist ones” — there is no comparison, of course, because the murders committed by Communist regimes are regrettable incidents on the inevitable path to the workers’ and peasants’ paradise, whereas those committed by Fascist states are inherent in the capitalist-imperialist nature of the system! Yes, Comrade! And the “crude idealist view of history” is the one that pays attention to the deaths of millions of people; the materialist view of history ignores such petty considerations in favor of the view from the shining heights! Bravo! A small nostalgic tear creeps from my eye, to be instantly dried by the cold wind of history…

  6. Language Hat: Thanks for your (first) comment and you make your position very clear. I am afraid, however, 1) I don’t think that Communism is evil. As a social, economic, and political system, I would say it is completely ineffective at achieving its stated goals and that, to establish and preserve itself, it has frequently relied on violence, political repression, and the continual management of a theory of global conspiracy. In many instances, and in many periods of Communist rule, this has lead to killings on a massive scale (e.g. Stalin) and starvation on completely unimaginable scales (e.g. great leap forward etc.), the denial of which I would enthusiastically join you in condemning.

    I would at most however, concede that Communism is “deluded” rather than “evil” since there is nothing inherently evil about the stated goals of its ideology and I suspect nothing necessarily more repressive about such a system than many alternatives experienced in the developing world (admittedly however, the separate empirical question of actual quantities of oppression, however, most likely wouldn’t calculate out in my favor, something I’m perfectly happy to admit). 2) the Fascism=Communism equation is indeed being made by many. Part of the problem of debating this is the huge diversity of opinion about what fascism means as an ideology and what it includes and does not include. This means we could get into a petty debate over terms which I really would find exhausting.

    Let me tentatively say that I mean it to be a radically nationalist system of government, based on mass support, a highly centralized system of control which implements strict socioeconomic controls, and most importantly almost always claims to represent an organic (national/racial/religious) community in opposition to either another such community or modernity itself (fascist movements are bizarre anti-modern modern movements whose claims of representing the pure and traditional mix with the fact that they often take modern institutions to their logical extremes). This definition allows me, of course, to apply the term quite widely—something which is undesirable and inconvenient to the historical agents who wielded the term totalitarian against their Communist enemy, since it allows us to include a vast swath of our fascist allies during the Cold War. Fine, you might say, let it be so, and let us include it in the ranks of totalitarian states. I don’t have any major rejection to this but it is completely detached from the important historical usage of the term as something much more selective…this is less a theoretical question than a political one.

    In fact, however, the historical imagination and the dominant public discourse on fascism (in the “free world” especially) is such that the term is usually reserved for Italy, German National Socialism, a few other client regimes in occupied Europe, and occasionally Japan. Since, at least for most of humanity, the “evil” of these regimes is uncontested, it makes the category convenient for use in the post-war discourse on totalitarianism deployed as the conveniently “neutral” face of anti-Communism.

    I think it is silly to engage in a kind of calculus of oppression and I agree with Kotaji that we should not engage in simplistic comparisons of static categories of fascist and communist regimes. It ignores the range of historical experiences in the world and encourages us to return to deeply flawed binaries.

    On the other hand, I don’t follow Kotaji in a desire to return to a teleological materialist or material deterministic view which reduces this discussion to an economic analysis.

    The point I make in this is historical, and not meant to be a raw polemic. As Jeun points out, and Lagrou would concur, it is just a fact that the anti-totalitarian movement was in fact, an attempt to create a concept wide enough to encompass the Nazi regime and the horrors of Stalin.

    To point this out, to historicize it, and to problematize the reduction of our analysis to categories which don’t fit the diversity of historical experience in the various regimes associated with fascism and communism is not however —and this is important—to attempt to rescue the fact that few Communist regimes, for all their claims of freedom of speech, “democracy” and equality, are innocent of huge hypocrisy and some of the worst atrocities of our century….but not “the worst” atrocity of our century, and we should not embrace the kind of McCarthy/Ann Coulter-like approach that support for Marxist theory (which for the record, I’m not the least attracted to) or Communist ideology links in a perfect chain to Stalin’s purges, the gulag, or Pol Pot’s massacre of the Cambodian people.

    I have no “nostalgic tear” to offer for Marxist theory or Communism, which would indeed have been “dried” by the “wind of history” but I have plenty of historical fodder for our own hypocrisy, our own conceptual and rhetorical witchcraft, and believe we should all maintain our critical edge with respect to the deeply problematic history of the “free world.”

  7. Thank you for your most civilized and thoughtful rejoinder; I apologize for the perhaps excessive snarkiness in my rejoinder to Kotaji, but I am deeply allergic to that variety of smug Marxist rhetoric, by which anything can be explained away.

    I respect your attitude, but I think it’s overly influenced by your desire to avoid any association with “the kind of McCarthy/Ann Coulter-like approach.” It’s natural to want to stay as far as one can from such people, but at the end of the day one’s opinion on Communism has to be based on Communism itself and not on the use right-wing primitives make of it as a stick with which to beat anyone to the left of them. And the fact is that the superficially attractive nature of “the stated goals of its ideology,” which drew so many idealistic people into its ambit over the last century and a half, is inseparable from the violence and political repression by which it has manifested itself. Communism, after all, is not socialism, and what distinguishes it is the presence of the “vanguard party” that knows better than anyone else what the direction of history is and how to help it along. (Incidentally, that mixture of determinism and free will always confused me.) Such a vanguard party, almost of necessity led by a particularly vanguard individual who will almost certainly be a power-mad psychopath (given human nature and the realities of achieving and keeping power), will use any means to achieve its goals, which will shift between simple survival (as in the period of the Russian Civil War), domination (as in the period of the International), and crackpot visions (Lysenko, “virgin soil,” the Great Leap Forward). We will not achieve maturity as a species (not to mention the simple decency of refraining from killing each other in vast numbers) until we wean ourselves from visions of purity and perfection and accept that progress must always be piecemeal and knowledge partial.

    I should say that as an anarchist (who realizes full well that anarchism will not be achieved for millennia if at all) I have a particularly detached perspective on any and all political theories that involve dominating people for their own good. But I don’t think that invalidates my position here.

    Thanks for this stimulating conversation!

  8. Not sure I’ve been called smug before, but it’s probably about time…

    I don’t want to clog up your comments with a long discussion of the history and development of Stalinism, but I would like to say a couple of quick things in response to the comments above.

    First, if you read my first comment you should see that I am not in any way defending ‘Communist’ [Stalinist] regimes. I don’t think we have any difference of opinion over the horrendous nature of these countries. Far from being “regrettable incidents on the inevitable path to the workers’ and peasants’ paradise”, regimes such as the Soviet Union, China etc are/were the total opposite of socialism and Marx’s ideas of self-emancipation. They were not mere setbacks on the road but utter defeats for the left (and in this they certainly have something in common with fascism).

    Second, I’m curious about Muninn’s belief that my (brief) comments reveal a “desire to return to a teleological materialist or material deterministic view which reduces this discussion to an economic analysis”. I didn’t spot any of those problems in what I actually said (for example I certainly wouldn’t deny the the importance of ideology as a causal factor in history). It really has become something of a modern-day myth that historical materialism is determinist and/or teleological. But this is really not sustainable unless you think Stalinism=Marxism.

    Actually wrote a paper about the influence of teleological Stalinist theory on Korean historiography a couple of years ago that tried to contextualise this dead-end of historical theory and put forward an alternative (Select Papers of the Korean Studies Graduate Student Conference 2003 – Korea Insitute, Harvard University).

  9. “It really has become something of a modern-day myth that historical materialism is determinist and/or teleological. But this is really not sustainable unless you think Stalinism=Marxism.”

    Modern day myth? The later Marx was pretty clear about the deterministic nature of historical materialism. Perhaps you’re thinking of early “humanist” Marx. Perhaps you’re thinking of the Frankfurt school and other later attempts to incorporate theories of cultural change into the Marxist frame. Perhaps you’re thinking of Gramsci who attempted a similar revision of Marx’s emphases. All of that would be fair to do. But I dont think you can say that one cannot find historical determinism in Marx’s writings themselves; is it certainly there. And it is what provided fodder for people like Stalin.
    Its perfectly fine to debate with Marx about these things, I think it was a debate he had with himself over time. But lets not pretend that it “just wasnt there”. Stalin didn’t invent it entirely from scratch. Jesus wasn’t entirely about peace either, as Albert Schwietzer pointed out, and as some evangelistic apologists like to argue (“Its not Jesus, its christians; its not christianity, its the church”). Not quite.
    Why do I mention this? Only to point out that in fact there is nothing wrong with our attempts to debate *and modify* what – if you’re religoius, jesus said – and if you’re a Marxist, what Marx said. We should accept that such modifications are right and normal and necessary. Rather than argue that the “source” was “pure” to begin with, and thus retaining the idea of “following” our leaders in a “more perfect” way. Our leaders aren’t pure, and it is perfectly okay to disagree with them and make a case for modifying what they said. No one got it right the first time.

  10. Yeah, I pretty much agree with what you’ve said above jak, and I’m certainly not a ‘religious Marxist’ myself. Personally I don’t even like the term Marxism really – what we are talking about is a methodology and a research programme which has been and will be argued over and contributed to by many different people.

    However (it had to come didn’t it), I do also think that accusations of determinism levelled at Marx (and even more so at Engels) have been somewhat exaggerated in people’s anxiety to escape from the mechanistic Marxism of the Second International and Stalinism. I would highly recommend John Bellamy Foster’s ‘Marx’s Ecology’ (Monthly Review Press, 2000) Daniel Bensaid’s ‘Marx for Our Times’ (Verso, 2002) on this subject. Bensaid in particular really tries to look at how far the ‘Marx was a determinist’ argument stands up.

    (I’ve a feeling this comments thread is drifting inexorably further from its original topic…)

  11. What jak said. But thanks for clarifying your position, Kotaji; I’m glad to hear you’re not the apologist I lazily took you for, and I apologize for my assumption.

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