Nazism is as modern as liberalism

Courtesy of Putin, debates about the origin and nature of evil regimes have perked up.

Close. But not quite

Political scientists, both in Russia and elsewhere, are arguing about Putinism. Is it fascism? Nazism? National Bolshevism? (I’m strictly mentioning plausible versions, not the panegyrics peddled by Putin’s trolls.)

Alas, when it comes to political terminology, confusion reigns. Words are used imprecisely, with their core meaning muted by emotional overtones. Connotation wipes out denotation. Subtext dominates text.

Even founders of political movements often don’t understand their true nature. That’s because political convictions aren’t always, and never merely, rational. As often as not they come from the viscera, whose miasmic emanations are impossible to put into words.

Those who attempt to simplify such devilishly intricate phenomena often end up with a product that isn’t so much simple as simplistic. But people who think along such lines deserve sympathy. For no simple explanations exist. Every polity is bound with such an entangled ganglion of synapses that even first-rate philosophers are routinely stymied.

However, politicians striving for popular appeal can’t afford the luxury of philosophising. They have to get their message across in short, punchy slogans that inspire decisive action, not nuanced thought.

Thus Hitler once defined Nazism as a “wholesale repudiation of 1789”. Shallow political thinkers of various hues got hold of that claim and began to portray both Nazism and fascism as some sort of archaic throwbacks to the pre-Enlightenment times.

The underlying thought is based on their unshakeable commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment, belief in its axiomatic goodness. Hence the implicit syllogism: everything produced by the Enlightenment is good and modern – Nazism isn’t good – ergo, Nazism isn’t modern.

It’s true that all totalitarian regimes reject Western liberalism as the basis of modern polity. But liberalism is only a product of the Enlightenment, not its essence.

Its essence was revolt against Christendom, starting with the founding religion and proceeding to all its social, cultural and political manifestations. And every modern totalitarian regime mans the barricades of that revolt, continuing by various methods the gruesome work of the sans-culottes.

They are all godless in deed and typically also in word, with the pseudo-Christian rhetoric of Putin’s regime perhaps the only exception. Mussolini tempered his anti-Christian pronouncements because the Vatican still held sway over much of the Italian population, but that didn’t make his fascism any less atheist.

Hitler, along with Lenin and Stalin, didn’t even bother to lower the temperature of their atheist diatribes. They replaced Christ with a muscular human demiurge holding up either the hammer and sickle or the swastika, it didn’t really matter which.

The cultish aspects of modern totalitarian regimes aren’t pre-Enlightenment but pre-Christendom. They are pagan, with the nation acting as the bull’s head sitting on the totem pole.

Even when a totalitarian regime starts out by worshipping other idols, the nation eventually ousts them. Thus, although Bolshevism began as an internationalist cabal denying nationalism, it quickly evolved into a sort of National Bolshevism.

Mussolini noticed and approved. “Bolshevism,” he wrote in the early 1930s, “has developed into a sort of Slavic fascism.” His own regime insisted on tracing its spiritual origins back to the glorious pre-Christian days of the Roman Empire.

Yet nationalism, that ubiquitous, some will say defining, feature of all totalitarian regimes, didn’t exist in Rome and Athens. Nationalism didn’t exist at all until the Enlightenment ushered it in, along with the very concept of a consanguine nation.

People are by nature gregarious and divisive. They seek membership in a clearly defined group that both unites them and separates them from outsiders. When Christianity was removed as the spiritual glue, other adhesives were needed, and nationalism filled the gap.

The Enlightenment neatly blended it with liberalism by producing the concept of national self-determination, meaning that any consanguine ethnic group was entitled to statehood as of right. That elevated the state to the lofty plateau previously occupied by Christianity. Aspects of worship were bound to follow.

Thus the Enlightenment begat not only nationalism but also statism. That too, in its most virulent form, is a ubiquitous feature of all totalitarian states.

However, following the Ariadne’s thread of commonality, one may lose sight of equally valid diversity. For every polity is sui generis, a product not only of universal trends, but also of indigenous character.

Overstressing the commonalities may well obfuscate rather than elucidate. Thus Putin’s Russia is as much of an Enlightenment construct as Mussolini’s fascism, Hitler’s Nazism or Stalin’s National Bolshevism. For that matter, liberal democracy is also an Enlightenment construct, different though it is from totalitarian regimes in some important details.

However, while all totalitarians are anti-liberal, they are also pro-other-things. Those form a more or less universal palette, but different regimes tend to use some lurid colours more than others.

For example, corporatism is a child of statism, the natural offspring of post-Enlightenment state worship. Thus all modern states are either corporatist already or moving towards that ideal relentlessly.

However, totalitarian regimes are more consistent and less apologetic in their pursuit of corporatist control over the economy. The Bolsheviks pushed it to the natural extreme of total nationalisation.

Putin’s economy is as corporatist as Mussolini’s and Hitler’s, but it also includes constituents of both anarchic and organised crime that existed in neither Italy nor Germany. This blend is unique because, unlike those two countries, Russia has never developed stable laws and institutions underpinning economic activity.

That’s why transition from Bolshevik nationalisation to mock-Western corporatism created a multitude of loose ends, each avidly grabbed by itchy fingers. Italian and German corporatism, on the other hand, was more orderly and less prone to violent convulsions.

Putin’s nationalism is also somewhat different from Hitler’s and Mussolini’s. The latter saw Italy as a modern reincarnation of the Roman Empire, with himself as a second coming of Augustus.

Hitler, on the other hand, stressed the mystical, cultish, sylvan aspects of German identity. Those he blended with the Nietzschean Superman to come up with an ideal defined in strictly monoracial terms.

Putin’s brand of nationalism, while sharing some aspects with Mussolini’s and Hitler’s, adds to them a hodgepodge derived from traditional Russian messianism, suitably perverted Orthodoxy and imperialist Bolshevik universalism.

This blend is unique, which means that anyone drawing parallels with other totalitarian regimes must exercise caution. Nor is it easy to find the philosophical antecedents of Putinism.

If there is one thinker Putin openly identifies with, it’s Ivan Illyin (d. 1954). Putin regularly quotes this émigré philosopher, who combined Russian supremacism with frank admiration of Hitler and Mussolini, an emotion that outlived them both.

Illyin has acquired an iconic status in Russia on Putin’s watch, with the first part of his heritage brought up all the time, and the second, fascist one, ignored. Putin clearly sees Russia the way Illyin saw it, as a saviour of the world.

“No one nation in the world,” wrote Illyin, “has had the same amount of burden and the same task as the Russian people. And no one nation has gained out of these trials and ordeals so much strength, so much uniqueness and so much spiritual depth. Our Cross is heavy”.

That Cross is to be not only borne, but also used to bash resisters on the head. “Politics is the art of identifying and neutralising the enemy,” explained Illyin, and the soil of Putin’s Russia has proved fertile for such seeds.

Hitler, on the other hand, had no ambition of letting other nations reach out tropistically for the light shining out of Germany. His aim was to conquer, not to save, others. They were to be turned into servants to the German nation, not its doppelgängers.

All in all, it’s difficult, nay next to impossible, to describe any totalitarian regime, including Putin’s Russia, in the terms borrowed from any one discipline, be it politics, history or philosophy – or even from a combination of many such disciplines.

Usually, when a system of thought fails to arrive at truth expressible in terse, precise definitions, the system is faulty. Describing Putin’s regime as Nazi, fascist or even National Bolshevik is valid, provided we don’t expect to ride such taxonomic horses all the way to truth.

That destination could be best reached by a moral rating, which would make fine semantic distinctions largely irrelevant. Putin’s regime is evil, in the same senses in which Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and the Soviet Union were evil, but also in its own way.

That should suffice for all practical purposes. Theoretical puposes can only be served by a long book, not a short article.

1 thought on “Nazism is as modern as liberalism”

  1. Russia is Putin’s vehicle for reaching immortality. I don’t think he is wed to any 20th century ideology. He could well be the ‘purest’ dictator of all time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.