he word “fascism” is derived from the Latin fasces, bundles of rods bound around an ax and carried in Roman processions as an authority symbol; the bound rods represented the community unified around the central authority figure. Fascism is conceived as an expression of the organic unity of the society. Absolute power is vested in a supreme ruler. The state represents the collective will of the people.
Fascism has some ancient ideological foundations. Throughout most of human history the absolute power of the monarch was simply taken for granted. In the Middle Ages it was “the divine right of kings” who, at least by implication, embodied and interpreted the will of God to their subjects.
Fascism typically vests absolute authority in a single leader, who controls state bureaucracy with a hierarchy of delegated powers. Ths supreme leader is the source of all law, and is himself above the law. All government authority devolves from him; all rights of citizens are granted by him. The primary duty of other officials and the citizenry is strict obedience to their superiors in the state hierarchy, and ultimately to the supreme leader. The successful fascist leader maximizes his personal authority and, by extension, the power of the state.
The conception of the state as an organic being, equivalent to a human body with the brain in control, derives from classical political theorists including Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Hobbes. From this analogy some fascist theorists have proposed that the state has a kind of super-reality, a life of its own. These ideas are fully articulated by G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). By this reasoning, the state actually defines the “will of the people” for its citizens. Individualism is subsumed in the state. The citizens can’t disagree with the state any more than the big toe can disagree with the brain. This philosophy justifies a totalitarian state that may pursue whatever objectives it desires, and is free to use any means to eliminate opposition that might impede its progress to those objectives.
Fascism is typically associated with strong racial, ethnic or religious myths, which unify the dominant social group against perceived threats from minority groups. Viewed objectively, these social myths are irrational. Within the fascist society, however, the super-rational state manufactures whatever reality it wants. The moral and intellectual validity of this reality is irrelevant; only its emotional appeal matters. Mussolini’s famous retort to critics of his movement was “We think with our blood.” Hitler, Mussolini, Milosevic all promoted a strident nationalism based upon social myths, and fomented irrational racial or ethnic hatreds that led to state-sponsored programs of genocide. The tactic is simple: the shared hatred of some minority becomes a patriotic rallying point for supporters, and the violence it engenders intimidates any opposition.
Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism (1932) provides a clear statement of fascist ideology:
“…Fascism is a historical conception, in which man is what he is only in so far as he works within the spiritual process where he finds himself, in the family or social group, in the nation and in the history in which all nations collaborate. From this follows the great value of tradition, in memories, in language, in customs, in the standards of social life. Outside history man is nothing. Consequently Fascism is opposed to all the individualistic abstractions of a materialistic nature like those of the 18th century; and it is opposed to all Jacobin utopias and innovations. It does not consider that “happiness” is possible upon earth…. Against individualism, Fascism is for the state…. Liberalism denied the state in the interests of the particular individual; Fascism reaffirms the state as the true reality of the individual…. Not a race, not a geographically determined region, but as a community historically perpetuating itself, a multitude unified by a single idea, which is the will to existence and to power: consciousness of itself, personality.
…For Fascism the tendency to empire, to the expansion of nations, is a manifestation of vitality; its opposite, staying at home, is a sign of decadence.
Fascism implies a high degree of central economic planning, although there is little explicit economic dogma. A fascist state has ultimate authority over the labor, property and economic activities of its citizens, and the state’s objective is (presumably) to maximize total economic output from its economy. There is no collective bargaining for labor. The state may establish monopoly control over any or all industries, nationalize any or all resources, or leave markets to function on their own.Communism
Literally, “communism” means collective ownership. In a communist society, all resources are owned by the people. Communist ideology is based upon the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedich Engels (1820-1895), particularly their Communist Manifesto (1847) and Marx’s almost unreadable Capital (1887). Marxist theory holds that communism is an inevitable outgrowth of decadent capitalism. He predicts that the means of production will be increasingly concentrated in the hands of the capitalists, the workers (proletariat) are reduced to subsistence living, the capitalist economy falls into “secular stagnation” because the workers cannot afford the things they produce. The workers finally overthrow the capitalists and expropriate their capital.
In theory, the communist bureaucracy established to administer the expropriated means of production should be transitory: the state will wither away as the people achieve a utopian state of equality and cooperation. But twentieth-century communism didn’t quite work out that way, of course.
Although the political fortunes of communism faded at the end of the 20th century, the theory and practice of communism are important to understand. Communism was an extremely expensive social experiment. The major genocides of the 20th century were mostly committed in pursuit of communist ideals: 30+ million dead in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China; 25+ million dead in Stalin’s forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture and political purges of the 1930’s. Most of these people died in engineered famines. Even Hitler didn’t kill this many people.
Marxism had a powerful appeal to the European and American working classes in the early 20th century. The language of the Communist Manifesto is stirring: “Workers of the world, unite!” The utopian goals are appealing: “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” In fact, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Marxism is still a powerful political ideology, a valid method for interpreting history, and an influential intellectual framework.
Marxism is at heart a utopian philosophy based on “dialectical materialism.” Marx and Engels followed a long utopian tradition seeking the perfectibility of human nature and the realization of a perfectly free, equal society. They were humanists who would have been horrified to see their ideas used to justify so much political brutality in the 20th Century.
Dialectics, as fully articulated by Hegel in describing human thought (and grossly simplified here), is the analysis of conflicting principles or forces in history that are eventually resolved in a “synthesis”–some new idea, or new political, cultural or technological outcome. Each synthesis then generates an opposing principle, a new dialectical conflict, and a new synthesis. History is understood as a cycle of such conflicts and transformative resolutions.
Marx and Engels were materialists, dismissing religion as “the opium of the masses” in favor of material experience as the basis of knowledge and human interactions (materialism is a direct outgrowth of Locke’s empiricism). They therefore extended the application of dialectics to the material world: commodities become capital, market competition becomes monopoly, etc.
Soviet-style communism involved the collectivization of land and capital under the control of worker cooperatives, which were supervised by a central planning bureaucracy dominated by members of the communist party. State planners specified production quotas for each cooperative, and oversaw the supply of intermediate goods between industries. Goods and resources were allocated according to a central plan reflecting the government’s perception of the country’s needs, not by the “invisible hand” of competitive market forces. Obviously this was an enormous organizational challenge, and it is not surprising that the Soviet planned economy suffered from production bottlenecks, shortages of retail goods, quality control problems, etc. The government tolerated a degree of underground and quasi-underground private economic activity, the Soviet economy became increasingly dependent on this private sector, and the government eventually lost political control of it and finally succumbed to overwhelming economic reform pressures.