Fascism and Marxism: Two flowers from the same stem
You don’t need to be paying much attention to understand that we have a major problem in Western societies. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the Yellow Vest protests in France are symptoms of systems that have stopped working for large numbers of people.
Arising to fill the void with simplistic slogans and answers are populists like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage on the right and also Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn on the left. The masses are rebelling against broken neoliberal capitalism that has left them without opportunities and the chance to progress, that has gutted their cities and social services, and that has brainwashed half the population into thinking either the extreme left or the extreme right are the answer.
The truth is, neither are. Both fascism on the right and marxism on the left are poison flowers grown on the same philosophical stem, or two sides of the same coin if you prefer. Let me take you through a brief history of thought to explain what I mean.
The Ancient Greeks are renowned for their pursuit of philosophy. They wondered about space and the universe, some even hypothesized the atom, and they mused on the meaning of life and wondered how to live it well.
One of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers was named Heraclitus. He was born at a time of great social change when the ancient Athenian aristocracy was giving way to democracy, and he lamented it. Heraclitus was no fan of democracy; he wrote passages along the lines of “the mob fill their bellies like beasts. They take the bards and popular beliefs as their guides, unaware that the many are bad and only the few are good.”
Heraclitus was a man of his time. He’s one of the most influential Greek philosophers because he shaped the worldview of two that would follow: Plato and Aristotle.
Then Comes Plato
Ask anyone to name an ancient Greek philosopher and Plato will almost always be the one they think of. Plato is arguably the most prolific of all the philosophers, thinking of everything it was possible to contemplate for a man of his time and fleshing it out in great detail.
Plato was born amidst the Peloponnesian War, a time when Athens and Sparta were fighting to the death. The war lasted for the first 24 years of his life, and he saw Athens virtually destroyed. Incidentally, two of Plato’s uncles were killed by Democrats in the era known as the Thirty Tyrants, when Athens lost its democracy and fell into tyranny. None of this made Plato particularly warm to Democracy, and he held the vast majority of humanity in contempt. Anyone who reads his book The Republic will see that Plato was a fascist through and through; he believed that a wise and united aristocracy should rule over the masses with an iron fist and should even use extreme violence to keep them in their place if necessary.
So, what does all of this have to do with Marxism and Fascism? These are the early seeds of such political thoughts, but more importantly, Plato, greatly influenced by Heraclitus, fundamentally believed that the nature of the universe was one of fate or destiny; endless flux, ever-changing, moving toward a predetermined next step that would lead to more flux and change. Karl Popper calls this line of thinking Historicism.
Plato went further than Heraclitus, though. While the former believed that nothing could be done about this, Plato believed we could step out of the endless stream of change by an act of sheer willpower. He craved stability and an end to ceaseless change. Probably driven by this, he developed his Theory of Forms, surmising that there must be a perfect version of everything in a realm beyond the material. This would later be picked up by Christian philosophers and developed into the concept of heaven as we understand it today, which is very different than the heaven early Christians described. Christianity today could be categorized as a neoplatonic philosophy.
In Plato’s worldview, there exists a realm outside the material, where the first perfect version of everything exists. To give an example, Plato would have thought there is a perfect triangle in the realm of forms, and that all triangles in the material world are imperfect replications of the original. He likened the forms to the father, the universe to the mother, and the replications of the forms to children. This is important because it then leads Plato to the question of “what would the perfect state look like?” By state, we mean political state, of course, and he outlined his thinking on this in The Republic.
For Plato, the most important thing above all else was stability. He loathed democracy and the masses of what he deemed to be unenlightened humans. He believed that once this state was reached, all the change and flux and chaos could be held at bay for good. Essentially, Plato believed in and craved the end of history; a stable state that didn’t ever change and which mirrored as closely as possible the ideal state in the world of forms.
The Hegelian Dialectic
Following on in this line of thinking was George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, aka Hegel. Most people have heard of his dialectic. It is the notion that two contradictions fight it out (thesis and antithesis), eventually giving birth to something new (synthesis), and then it, in turn, has contradictions, which juke it out, giving birth to something else, etc, forever.
Hegel developed this idea in much more detail, but it still has its roots in the historicism or fatalism of Heraclitus and Plato. We don’t need to cover his work in detail here, other than to say that he had a huge influence on the thinking of Karl Marx as well as fascist thinkers.
Are you seeing the common thread here? All of these thinkers believe in fate, destiny, and that history determines the next step of what will come. Hegel defined the mechanism by which this happens, but the thinking had been there all along since Heraclitus.
Marx and Historical Materialism
Both Marxism and Fascism stem from Hegel, who in turn stems from Plato and Heraclitus. For fascists, the struggle is between races, of which one will ultimately emerge victoriously, and for Marxists, the struggle is between classes, with the proletariat ultimately winning that struggle as capitalism collapses because of its inherent contradictions.
For Marx, all of history was a struggle between the working class (proletariat) and their exploiters, who he called the bourgeoisie. He believed that the state of any society was determined by its material conditions, and that history proceeded like a river, slowly eroding away the river bank until one day it causes the entire riverbank to collapse. Things can go along for decades or centuries without seeming to change too much and the BOOM! the riverbank collapses and revolution unfolds.
Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains! — Karl Marx
Marx wasn’t quite right about the above; it turns out that approximately 100 million workers did have more to lose than their chains, namely their lives, but that’s a side point.
In his Communist Manifesto, he encouraged the workers of the world to unite and overthrow their bourgeoisie exploiters, but he determined that even if they didn’t, this would eventually happen anyway as the material conditions of the working class deteriorated to the point where a rebellion was inevitable. Essentially, Marx wanted to facilitate this revolution, but he thought that it would happen eventually no matter what and that capitalism would be replaced by socialism and eventually communism.
Does this sound familiar? While not Marxist in name, and while the people involved would never embrace it, what was Brexit if not a rebellion of the working class who were tired of their jobs being taken by an endless stream of cheap labor from Eastern Europe? What was Trump other than a rebellion against the offshoring of all industrial activity to China and the east? The material conditions this neoliberal globalism led to have pissed off vast swathes of the population who feel locked out and left for dead. I suspect that many of them are going to realize they were sold a bill of goods and swing hard left in the coming decades.
These are the rumblings of the beginning of a larger rebellion; warning shots if you wish, as people lose faith in the democratic system that was supposed to give them a voice and allow us to settle differences amicably and by compromise. They’ve realized they don’t have a voice as President after President and Prime Minister after Prime Minister has overseen the hollowing out of industry and the offshoring of jobs to appease their corporate donors.
Side Point: One of the contradictions of capitalism is that it undermines the source of its own profits. As capitalists compete, they have to drive prices lower, eventually offshoring jobs to cheaper countries and then automating them. Yet, the workers who are being displaced are the very customers who are going to buy the goods produced in the factories. To avoid this inevitable end, mass amounts of credit are extended to consumers, and eventually, when they can’t pay it back because they either lose their jobs to this same process or wages stagnate, capitalism collapses and is rescued by huge volumes of central bank debt monetization. You might have noticed that each crisis gets bigger and bigger. That’s not an accident. Eventually, it will be so big that it will be impossible to sustain. This is why you’re hearing about Universal Basic Income — eventually, in an effort to sustain itself, capitalism will morph into a form of socialism where the customers are GIVEN the money to buy from the capitalists. Insane, isn’t it?
So, what is to be done?
No, I’m not referring to Lenin’s famous Marxist tract by the same name in which he calls for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Communism. We tried that, and it didn’t lead to a good place, and neither did the other bastard child of historicism; fascism.
I’m not going to claim to have all the answers, but there are some basic starting points we can all think about.
First, we need to recognize and accept these things. I personally believe that all philosophical historicism is incorrect and that we can intervene and play a role in how things turn out. Karl Popper does a good job of dismantling this idea of historicism in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies.
Second, we need to listen to the political rebels. If these warning shots are not heeded, it’s going to lead to something much worse. If working people do not feel that they can move up the social ladder, buy homes, and progress in stable careers, they’re going to overthrow the system and replace it with something new. It’s hard to see how they can ever do that when Jeff Bezos is allowed to pocket $200 billion while his workers can’t afford to buy houses. Something needs to change about this rotten and corrupt system or it will fall over and collapse. And no, starting your own business and working two jobs is not the answer. 90% of small businesses fail, and working two jobs is just bullshit. Who wants to live like that just to maintain a decent standard of living? It also has other consequences on health, family life, mental wellbeing, etc.
Third, we need to recognize that for all its messiness, its maddening slowness, its chaotic changes, and fluctuations, Democracy is all we’ve got. There is literally no acceptable alternative. We either descend into barbarism and settle this with guns and bullets, or some dictator tells us what to do from above and brutally suppresses any form of dissent. There are examples of both on the right and left, and we don’t need to revisit those chapters of history to find out what happens.
It’s time to stop blaming people for being mad and figure out why. Then, before it really does get nasty, it’s time to do something about it. Philosophical historicism is wrong. We can change the system.