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Book Review: The Faces of Janus

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The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century
by A. James Gregor (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000); 240 pages; $30.

IN 1947, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises published a short book entitled Planned Chaos. He analyzed and put into perspective the intellectual and ideological forces that had been at work in the Western world since the First World War and which had led to the Second World War.

He pointed out that it was “important to realize that Fascism and Nazism were socialist dictatorships” and that both had been “committed to the Soviet principle of dictatorship and violent oppression of dissenters.” He reminded his readers that before the First World War, Benito Mussolini had been one of the leading socialists in Italy. His major heresy from Marxian orthodoxy had been his strong endorsement of Italian entry into World War I on the Allied side as a means to “liberate” Italian-speaking areas under Austrian control in the Alps.

When the war ended, Mussolini organized the Fascist movement, unifying Italian nationalists, economic collectivists, and various groups from all walks of life that had come to reject traditional Marxian socialism. Mussolini took his economic agenda from the philosophy of syndicalism, the idea that trades, crafts, professions, and industries would be grouped into mandatory cartels and unions through which the nation’s economic system would be planned and directed under government supervision and control. Mises pointed out that fascism “began with a split in the ranks of Marxian socialism…. Its economic program was borrowed from German non-Marxian socialism” and that “its conduct of government affairs was a replica of Lenin’s dictatorship.” Mises also argued that the philosophy of Nazism was “the purest and most consistent manifestation of the anticapitalistic and socialistic spirit of our age.” Indeed,

The Nazi plan was more comprehensive and therefore more pernicious than that of the Marxians. It aimed at abolishing laissez-faire not only in the production of material goods, but no less in the production of men. The Führer was not only the general manager of all industries; he was also the general manager of the breeding-farm intent upon rearing superior men and eliminating inferior stock.

Furthermore, Mises said, “There were nowhere more docile disciples of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin than the Nazis…. They imported from Russia: the one-party system and the preeminence of this party in political life; the paramount position assigned to the secret police; the concentration camps; the administrative execution or imprisonment of all opponents; the extermination of the families of suspects and of exiles; the method of propaganda,” and many other techniques besides.

The great taboo

To argue that Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and German Nazism were all branches from a common source in collectivism and socialism has been one of the great taboos of the 20th century. Among many intellectuals, and not only among those on the political left, the consensus has been that Soviet communism, no matter how disappointing in practice, was an amoral, idealistic, and “progressive” attempt to bring political harmony, social justice, and economic equality to all mankind. Fascism and Nazism, on the other hand, were manifestations of reactionary, capitalist forces attempting to maintain their system of social injustice and economic exploitation through dictatorship, violence, and war.

This great taboo is now increasingly being challenged. Historian Richard Pipes drew attention to the influence of Soviet tyranny on fascism and Nazism in his work Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (1994), pointing out that Mussolini and Hitler “learned a great deal from Bolshevik techniques in building up a party personally loyal to them to seize power and establish a one-party dictatorship.” He also drew attention to the similarities between the Soviet and Nazi economic systems in his book Property and Freedom. (See the review in Freedom Daily, September 1999).

Socialism and fascism

Now A. James Gregor, one of the leading authorities on the history and ideas of Italian fascism, takes this analysis one step further in his recent work, The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century. He not only explains the socialist and Marxist roots of fascism in the years immediately following the First World War, he also shows the fascist influence on communist regimes from Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union to Mao Zedong in China.

Gregor says that among the Italian socialists in the years during and following the First World War there was a sense that the traditional Marxian call for proletarian revolution to abolish capitalism was not applicable to an economically underdeveloped country such as Italy. Italy needed to first become industrialized before it could pass into the Marxian conception of socialism. Also, many of them concluded that this could be done only in the context of a nationalist unification that brought together all “social classes” for a collectivist drive for modernization under state control and planning.

Traditional Marxists in Italy and Bolshevik Russia were shocked and thrown off balance by the challenge of fascism, especially since it seemed to have a strong appeal for a large portion of the population, including “the working class.” As a result, in the 1920s and 1930s the official Marxist and Soviet party line became that fascism was not a progressive and revolutionary movement but a force representing the reactionary interests of big capitalists, small middle-class businessmen, and agrarian landowners, even though there was no empirical evidence to substantiate the claim. This lexicon of the “bad” right-wing fascists and the “good” left-wing socialists and communists became the knee-jerk framework for most intellectuals for the remainder of the 20th century.

The peculiar irony, Gregor shows, is that already under Lenin, and most especially during the Stalinist period, the Soviet Union took on more and more fascist-like features. Stalin’s policy of “building socialism in one country” brought about the new notion of Soviet “nationalism” and patriotism, in place of Marxism’s traditional emphasis on socialist internationalism.

The ideas of political hierarchy and Soviet class distinctions within the Communist Party and the ruling bureaucratic structure of power and control replaced the ideology of egalitarianism. The cult and worship of Stalin in the Soviet Union, similar to the führer principle in Nazi Germany, superseded the Marxian idea that history is made by “classes” rather than by individuals.

Gregor traces out the same process in Communist China. The thoughts of Mao Zedong were taken to be the infallible wisdom of the leader who was never to be questioned and disagreement with which, by definition, made a person a “class enemy.” Chinese nationalism wrapped in Marxian terminology became the focal point of loyalty to the communist system. Even racism became part of the Chinese communist order of things, with its emphasis on the central role of the great Han people and the need to pacify, educate, and control the lesser peoples, such as the Tibetans. The racial element, Gregor points out, developed in the Soviet Union as well, beginning with Stalin and the emphasis on the historical importance and leading role of the Russian people over the dozens of ethnic and linguistic minorities in the Soviet Union.

Indeed, Gregor concludes that it is fascism’s “national socialism” in the name of modernization, national unity, and international political rivalry among states that has been the dominant form of socialist ideology in the 20th century. And most fundamentally what bound communist, fascist, and Nazi socialism together as a single force in our time was their common hatred and opposition to individualism, limited government, free-market economics, and a civil society outside and independent of political control.

The danger Gregor sees for the future is that the fascist form of socialism, with its various appeals to diverse groups in society, may not have lost its attraction. Fascism, he fears, regardless of the particular names it goes under, may yet leave its mark on the 21st century as well.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).