At the half-way mark of the Twentieth Century, in 1950, the French Annales historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “what an endless century it has been, indeed, leaving its bloody mark on Europe and on the whole world”. Eric Hobsbawm describes this murderous century now past into history as “The Short Twentieth Century”, beginning when a secular peace in Europe was shattered by an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo and a declaration of war from the aged Emperor Franz Josef, and ending in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Marx, the theorist of commodification, perhaps, would not have been surprised that capitalism has turned the symbols of Leninist revolution into brand marketing. Marx also wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Andrew Norton at Catallaxy agreed with Louis Nowra writing in the SMH that Che Guevera t-shirts, for instance, are distasteful. This sparked off a lively debate at both Catallaxy and John Quiggin’s place over the relative evils of fascism and communism, and on whether fascism is a political philosophy. John later put up a specific post on ‘The Stalinist Delusion’.
I recently read Robert O. Paxton’s new book The Anatomy of Fascism. Paxton argues that unlike conservatism, socialism and liberalism, fascism is not a political philosophy – it has no articulated body of thought and no coherent answer to political questions. He points to the contradictions and unacknowledged massive revisions in what passed for Mussolini and Hitler’s political programmes. There was certainly a climate of ideas which gave rise to fascism, but this isn’t quite the same thing. Paxton also contends that fascism’s grounding in fear and hatred leads inevitably to genocide in the period of its ‘radicalisation’ under conditions of war.
To debate this question in a spirit of partisanship is unhelpful. Understanding the causes of genocide and mass death is necessary and urgent. But it’s also important to be clear about history. David McKnight has it right in his reply to Nowra in the SMH:
The claim that Stalin and Hitler were equals is part of an argument which tries to prove that Marxism, as an intellectual framework, was akin to fascism. Marxism, now largely defunct, was very unlike fascism. Marxism was very much part of the Enlightenment heritage of the West. It was an ideology based on rationalism, science and progress. As such it influenced social science and the humanities. Its critique of economic power has become part of the common sense of our era. It was the militant wing of the Enlightenment. By contrast, fascism was a product of the counter-Enlightenment. Its call to blood, race and nation was utterly different to Marxism. Both produced dystopias but for different reasons. Marxism’s fatal flaw was precisely its utopianism, based on a literal implementation of its Enlightenment values of equality and rationality. It took little account of the nature of human beings, and did not have a functional and elaborate moral sense. (A similar critique can be made of current ideologies of free-trade globalisation.)