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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Big Problem With the Traditional ‘Political Spectrum’ Children Are Taught in Schools

Instead of deploying flawed and simplistic spectrum charts, let us judge political and economic systems by who they empower—the State or the individual.

Image Credit: StockSnap - Pixabay

In classes on Government and Political Science, with few exceptions, students in both high school and college are taught that the so-called “political spectrum” (or “political/economic” spectrum) looks like this: Communism and Socialism reside on the Left, Capitalism and Fascism dwell on the Right. Various mixtures of those things lie somewhere in between:

This is not only false and misleading, it is also idiocy. Toss it into the trash bin and demand a refund from the teacher who presented it as fact, or as any kind of insightful educational tool.

At the very least, a spectrum that looks like that should raise some tough questions. Why should socialists and fascists be depicted as virtual opposites when they share so much in common—from their fundamental, intellectual principles to their methods of implementation? If a political spectrum is supposed to illustrate a range of relationships between the individual and the State, or the very size and scope of the State, then why are systems of Big State/Small Individuals present at both ends of it?

On any other topic, the two ends of a spectrum would depict opposites. Let’s say you wanted to illustrate a range for stupidity. It would look like this:

How much sense would it make for “Extremely Stupid” to appear at both the far Left and the far Right ends of the range?

For the same reason, you would create only confusion with a spectrum that looks like this:

If you wanted to depict a range of options regarding the size of government, a more meaningful range would be this one:

Let us get back to Sketch 1, the spectrum that is most often presented to students as gospel. It is a big reason why so many people think that the communism of Lenin and Stalin was diametrically opposed to the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini (even if people who lived under those systems could not tell much difference).

I must say that in the first place, I am not a fan of spectrums as a device for understanding, especially when those who construct them insert terms along the range that are not all compatible with what the range is supposed to depict. Capitalism, for example, is not a political system; it is an economic one. It is entirely possible (though uncommon and ultimately unstable) for a one-party political monopoly to allow a considerable degree of economic freedom. But my purpose here is to deal with the defective political/economic spectrum that most students learn.

My contention is that if Communism, Socialism, Fascism and Capitalism all appear on the same range line, it is terribly misleading and utterly useless to place the first two on the left and the second two on the right. The placement that makes the most sense is this one:

The perspective represented in Sketch 5 immediately arouses dispute because its implications are quite different from what students are typically taught. The inevitable objections include these three:

1. Communism and fascism cannot be close together because communists and fascists fought each other bitterly. Hitler attacked Stalin, for example!

This objection is equivalent to claiming, “Al Capone and Bugs Moran hated and fought each other so they can’t both be considered gangsters.” Or, “Since Argentina and Brazil compete so fiercely in football, both teams cannot be composed of footballers.”

Both communism and fascism demonstrate in actual practice an extremely low regard for the lives and rights of their subject peoples. Why should anyone expect their practitioners to be nice to each other, especially when they are rivals for territory and influence on the world stage?

We should remember that Hitler and Stalin were allies before they were enemies. They secretly agreed to carve up Poland in August 1939, leading directly to World War II. The fact that Hitler turned on Stalin two years later is nothing more than proof of the proverb, “There’s no honor among thieves.” Thieves are still thieves even if they steal from each other.

2. Under communism as Karl Marx defined it, government “withers away.” So it cannot be aligned closely with socialism because socialism involves lots of government.

Marx’s conception of communism is worse than purely hypothetical. It is sheer lunacy. The idea that the absolutist despots of the all-powerful “proletarian dictatorship” would one day simply walk away from power has no precedent to point to and no logic behind it. Even as a prophecy, it strains credulity to the breaking point.

Communism is my Sketch 5 appears where it does because in actual practice, it is just a little more radical than the worst socialism. It is the difference between the murderous, totalitarian Khmer Rouge of Cambodia and, say, the socialism of Castro’s Cuba.

3. Communism and Fascism are radically different because in focus, one is internationalist and the other is nationalist (as in Hitler’s “national socialism”).

Big deal. Again, chocolate and vanilla are two different flavors of ice cream, but they’re both ice cream. Was it any consolation to the French or the Norwegians or the Poles that Hitler was a national socialist instead of an international socialist? Did it make any difference to the Ethiopians that Mussolini was an Italian nationalist instead of a Soviet internationalist?

Endless confusion persists in political analysis because of the false dichotomy the conventional spectrum (Sketch 1) suggests. People are taught to think that fascists Mussolini and Hitler were polar opposites of communists Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In fact, however, they were all peas in the same collectivist pod. They all claimed to be socialists. They all sought to concentrate power in the State and to glorify the State. They all stomped on individuals who wanted nothing more than to pursue their own ambitions in peaceful commerce. They all denigrated private property, either by outright seizure or regulating it to serve the purposes of the State.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider these remarks of the two principal Fascist kingpins, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Ask yourself, “Are these remarks materially different from what Lenin, Stalin and Mao—or even Marx—believed and said?”

In a February 24, 1920 speech outlining the Nazi 25-Point Program, Hitler proclaimed, “The common good before the individual good!”

In a speech to Italy’s Chamber of Deputies on December 9, 1928, Mussolini declared, “All within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State!”

“To put it quite clearly,” said Hitler in a 1931 interview with journalist Richard Breitling, a core program of his Party was “the nationalization of all public companies, in other words socialization, or what is known here as socialism…the principle of authority. The good of the community takes priority over that of the individual. But the State should retain control; every owner should feel himself to be an agent of the State; it is his duty not to misuse his possessions to the detriment of the State or the interests of his fellow countrymen. That is the overriding point. The Third Reich will always retain the right to control property owners.”

“This is what we propose now to the Treasury,” announced Mussolini on June 19, 1919. “Either the property owners expropriate themselves, or we summon the masses of war veterans to march against these obstacles and overthrow them.”

Less than two weeks before (on June 6, 1919), the future Il Duce virtually plagiarized The Communist Manifesto when he said, “We want an extraordinary heavy taxation, with a progressive character, on capital, that will represent an authentic partial expropriation of all wealth; seizures of all assets of religious congregations and suppression of all the ecclesiastic Episcopal revenues.”

This line from Hitler’s May Day speech at Templehof Air Field in 1934 could have come straight from Lenin: “The hammer will once more become the symbol of the German worker and the sickle the sign of the German peasant.”

That’s the same socialist fanatic who declared in an October 5, 1937 speech, “There is a difference between the theoretical knowledge of socialism and the practical life of socialism. People are not born socialists but must first be taught how to become them.” (Please note: communists and fascists share a common hostility to private and home schooling.)

Mussolini asserted that “there are plenty of intellectual affinities between us” (socialists of the communist variety and socialists of the fascist flavor). In the same interview in 1921, he said, “Tomorrow, Fascists and Communists, both persecuted by the police, may arrive at an agreement, sinking their differences until the time comes to share the spoils…Like them, we believe in the necessity for a centralized and unitary state, imposing an iron discipline on everyone, but with the difference that they reach this conclusion through the idea of class, we through the idea of the nation.”

Hitler once declared, “National Socialism is the determination to create a new man. There will no longer exist any individual arbitrary will, nor realms in which the individual belongs to himself. The time of happiness as a private matter is over.” In 1932 his fascist soul mate Mussolini echoed the most doctrinaire Bolshevik when he stated, “It was inevitable that I should become a Socialist ultra, a Blanquist, indeed a communist. I carried about a medallion with Marx’s head on it in my pocket. I think I regarded it as a sort of talisman… [Marx] had a profound critical intelligence and was in some sense even a prophet.”

The same Mussolini advised the American businessman and politician Grover Whalen in 1939, “You want to know what fascism is like? It is like your New Deal!” He was referring to the central planning, anti-capitalist mandates and sky-high taxes of Franklin Roosevelt.

On and on it goes. Based on what they said and what they did, it is ludicrous to separate Fascism from the Left and make it out to be just a purified form of classical liberal Capitalism. If you insist on using the conventional spectrum as depicted in Sketch 1, you are deceiving yourself as to the differences between Communism and Fascism. They both belong firmly on the socialist Left. Actual differences amounted to minimalist window-dressing. Even their primary implementers said so.

Instead of deploying flawed and simplistic spectrum charts, let us judge political and economic systems by who they empower—the State or the individual. That makes things a lot clearer.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is