Overused terms can lose their meaning. Few words are thrown around as carelessly as Communism, Socialism, and Fascism. Socialism is not the cheese touch. There are realities behind these ideologies. Reducing a word like “Communist” to the rhetorical equivalent of “doodoohead” is dangerous.
Communism solves the problem of inequality by abolishing private property ownership in favor of state control. Everyone receives all of their basic needs equally from the state (though some are more equal than others). Economic decisions are centrally planned. No competition or private enterprise is tolerated. Most Communist governments permit the ownership of a few personal items, but nothing more. Totalitarian economic control effectively eliminates personal liberty.
Union membership in Communist countries is usually compulsory. Unions operate as an arm of the central government.
North Korea, Laos and Cuba are the world’s last remaining Communist regimes. China and Vietnam are still governed by their Communist Parties, but have abandoned Communist economics in favor of an awkward, still-evolving hybrid. The most powerful historical examples of Communism are Russia under the Soviets and China prior to the 1980’s.
In a Socialist system the government owns the companies in key sectors of the economy (usually, steel, airlines, utilities, energy, and major manufacturers), while private economic activity is otherwise permitted. Technically, Socialism as described by Marx was a developmental stage in the progress toward Communism. In practical terms it has been defined by the social democracies of post-war Western Europe. European Socialists abandoned Marxism early in the postwar period in favor of a partnership between government, labor, and capital.
Private property ownership is protected, but taxes are very high, close to 60% today in some countries. Top marginal rates have reached nearly 100% at times in the past.
In return for high levels of government and labor input, industries receive significant public subsidies and protection from competition. Individuals receive state pensions, a broad range of subsidies on housing and child care, and generous unemployment and disability benefits.
European Democratic Socialism preserves broad civil individual rights while other Socialist regimes, like Venezuela, are relatively repressive.
Socialism was successful as Western Europe worked to rebuild from World War Two. However, by the ‘70’s the absence of creative destruction under Socialist governments bred widespread stagnation and unemployment.
The Thatcher government in Britain led the way in dismantling the old Socialist model, selling off inefficient state-owned businesses and rolling back entitlements. By the nineties, much of Europe was embracing a mixed-model Capitalism. Union membership in Europe has been steadily declining (only 9% in France).
The governments of the Scandinavian countries have resisted the trend toward economic liberalization and remained committed to Socialism.
Fascism leverages a powerful central authority to protect a supposedly superior, but embattled religious, cultural, or racial identity. Fascism is totalitarian, using fear to support the complete elimination of basic civil liberties.
A Fascist government is generally organized around a single charismatic figure and seldom survives that leader’s death. Union activity is violently suppressed and labor figures are often jailed or executed. In many Fascist regimes a thin or non-existent social safety net is cushioned by heavy public employment in the security services and maintenance of a large military.
The Nazis are the most common example of Fascism, but perhaps not the most successful. The Third Reich rose and collapsed spectacularly in a fairly short span. The governments of Spain and Portugal which held power into the ‘70’s are perhaps the most emblematic examples of Fascism.
The business climate under Fascism is relatively free. Taxes are very low and strikes are illegal. The only major state expenditure under Fascism is the extensive police and security infrastructure, so the public sector as a percentage of GDP remains modest. In 1965 the public sector in Spain was only 15% of GDP, less than a third of France or Britain.
Fascist states cultivate a climate of fear, usually focused on a racial or religious minority, or a perceived external threat. Religion was a key pillar of Fascism in Spain and Portugal, with members of Opus Dei taking vital roles throughout the Franco government. Jews, Masons, Marxists, Gypsies, and Homosexuals were targets of conspiracy theories and official repression.
Women’s rights were tightly constrained in Spain and Portugal, as they were under German and Italian Fascism. Divorce was banned, adultery was a crime, and a woman needed a husband’s permission to get a bank account or take a job. Contraceptives and abortion were strictly banned. Even Playboy was outlawed in Spain until after Franco’s death.
Some argue that the Pinochet regime in Chile, the Colorado Party in Paraguay, Arab Baathists, and apartheid South Africa were Fascist, though each had many unique characteristics that make them tough to generalize.
America has never been fertile ground for any of these ideologies because they each infringe either economic (Communism or Socialism) or personal (Fascism and Communism) liberties in ways that conflict with our culture. Nonetheless each has had their moments.
The Communists played an important role in the labor movement until about World War II. Socialists were somewhat successfully locally in the Industrial North early in the 20th Century.
Fascism had its own parallel in the Jim Crow regimes of the segregated South. In the north Father Coughlin had a popular, if politically enigmatic, radio show in the ‘30’s. He expressed support for the Nazis and blamed the Depression on an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers.”
Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford both expressed admiration for the Nazis. Brent Bozell, who ghost-wrote Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, was a staunch defender of Franco who promoted the Spanish Fascist model in the US over resistance from Goldwater and William F. Buckley.
In modern American politics these ideologies have gone the way of the Whigs, but their fragmentary remains are embedded all over the spectrum. A skilled polemicist can play “Six Degrees of Fascism” and tie any modern political figure to any or all of these systems. That game earns ratings, but it trivializes the sacrifices of people who suffered under these regimes. Crying wolf to light up an audience isn’t merely deceitful, it leaves us more vulnerable to repeat terrible mistakes.
[…] How does the European model work? For starters, don’t call it socialism. Western Europe began to dismantle state ownership of capital, forced unionization, and the other elements of socialist economics half a century ago and little remains of that model. For many Americans who have grown accustomed to the idea that any state spending is Communism, that concept may be a little challenging. Here’s a primer. […]