Commonalities in Marxist and Nazi ideology

2011-04-22

in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Psychology, Writing

There is an interesting passage in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate in which he argues that the Nazi and Marxist ideologies share important ideological assumptions that partly explain why each produces large-scale human suffering:

The ideological connection between Marxist socialism and National Socialism is not fanciful. Hitler read Marx carefully while living in Munich in 1913, and may have picked up from him a fateful postulate that the two ideologies would share. It is the belief that history is a preordained succession of conflicts between groups of people and that improvement in the human condition can only come from the victory of one group over the others. For the Nazis the groups were races; for the Marxists they were classes. For the Nazis the conflict was Social Darwinism; for the Marxists, it was class struggle. For the Nazis the destined victors were the Aryans; for the Marxists, they were the proletariat. The ideologies, once implemented, led to atrocities in a few steps: struggle (often a euphemism for violence) is inevitable and beneficial; certain groups of people (the non-Aryans or the bourgeoisie) are morally inferior; improvements in human welfare depend on their subjugation or elimination. Aside from supplying a direct justification for violent conflict, the ideology of intergroup struggle ignites a nasty feature of human social psychology: the tendency to divide people into in-groups and out-groups and to treat the out-groups as less than human. It doesn’t matter whether the groups are thought to be defined by their biology or by their history. Psychologists have found that they can create instant intergroup hostility by sorting people on just about any pretext, including the flip of a coin.

The ideology of group-against-group struggle explains the similar outcomes of Marxist and Nazism. (p.157 paperback, emphasis mine)

To me, the key corrective to the excesses of any ideology that tries to build utopias is to recognize that human thinking and planning are flawed, and that we must respect the welfare and rights of individuals. We should not become so convinced in the rightness of our cause that we become willing to utterly trample others in order to achieve it. Even when confronted with hostile ideologies which we cannot tolerate, we should not be ruthless toward our opponents. Rather, we should consider the extent to which the aims we are seeking to achieve justify the means through which we are seeking to achieve them. We should also bear in mind the possibility that we are wrong or misled, and design systems of government to limit how much harm governments themselves can do.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan April 22, 2011 at 9:08 am

Capitalists believe in class struggle at least as much, perhaps more than Marxists. If you want evidence, just look at how the elites have organized against the masses over the past century, and especially since the 70s.

oleh April 23, 2011 at 12:13 am

Tolerance of different opinions and differences among peoples are also very important.

The excesses arising out of Naziism and Marxism, or at least totalitarian regimes that cite Marxism as their governing doctrine, was the lack of tolerance of others and the willingness to use force or even genocide against those that the ideologies identified as “enemies”.

Milan April 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Tolerance isn’t automatically a good thing. Indeed, people who do not take a stand against truly appalling behaviour are one reason why so much of it happens in the world.

Similarly, there are times when the use of force is justified and necessary.

To appreciate why Marxist and Nazism are harmful doctrines, I think we need to engage with the reasoning behind them and point out how key factual claims within those ideologies are false and key moral arguments are faulty.

anon April 25, 2011 at 1:03 am

Milan,

Listening to you talk about Marxism is like listening to a hippy talk about science-based medicine.

anon April 25, 2011 at 1:13 am

“Conceptually, we can separate the question “Is there a physical/biological/genetic basis to intelligence” from the question “What moral implications does that have for society?””

Yes

And

Conceptually, we can separate the question “Is class struggle real” or “Is there is an objective conflict between the elites and the working class” from the question “What moral implications does this have for society?”

anon April 25, 2011 at 1:18 am

“Similarly, there are times when the use of force is justified and necessary.”

Who decides when a behaviour is “truly appalling”? You have reduced the question of the legitimate use of force to something like “when I really, really feel that what is happening is wrong”. Well, lots of people “really, really feel” that the use of force against capitalism is justified because it leads, pretty much inevitably, to conditions which lots of people find “really appalling”.

Milan April 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Capitalism produces better outcomes than alternative systems do. The state of the world is good evidence of that. Capitalistic places like Europe, North America, or Japan are better places to live than communist or despotic countries.

Is there a non-capitalist society where you would want to live anywhere in the world today?

Milan April 25, 2011 at 12:14 pm

In most of the world’s non-capitalist countries, it seems you can pretty easily be jailed for your political views.

Alex April 25, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Another commonality: Identification of the Church as ‘enemy’ which is to be fought either by persecution or the time-honored method of ‘divide et impera’.

anon April 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm

“Is there a non-capitalist society where you would want to live anywhere in the world today?”

Is there a non-feudalist society where you want want to live anywhere in the world in 1600?

anon April 25, 2011 at 2:43 pm

If you bothered to read Marx, you’d know that the analysis of capitalism offered by Marx has nothing to do with the positive project of constructing a post-capitalist society. This non-commitment to utopian future ideas of the world is something Marx shares with anarchists, although unfortunately not with most “Marxists”.

oleh April 25, 2011 at 3:03 pm

There is a distinction between tolerance of opinion and tolerance of behavior. There should not be tolerance of truly appalling behavior. The Holocaust under the pretense of Nazi Ideology and the Holodymor (Genocide of Ukrainians under Stalin) or the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China under the pretenses of Marxism are examples of appalling behavior that should not be tolerated.

Milan April 25, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Is there a non-feudalist society where you want want to live anywhere in the world in 1600?

So you are waiting for a new government that has Marxist economic policies, but still has democratic legitimacy and respects human rights and the freedom of speech?

Experience so far suggests that you can have one or the other. Marxist economic doctrine doesn’t involve much respect for the individual.

anon April 25, 2011 at 6:28 pm

“So you are waiting for a new government that has Marxist economic policies, but still has democratic legitimacy and respects human rights and the freedom of speech?”

Yes. That’s what a dictatorship of the proletariat could look like – a democracy within the context of worker owned means of production, rather than capitalist owned production.

If you tried actually reading Marx, you’d know that there is not really such a thing as a “Marxist economic policy”, unless “marxist” is being used to mean “Soviet” or “Maoist”. Neither the USSR nor Maoist or post-maoist china were “communist”, because the first tenant of communism is worker-owned production, and neither state practiced that.

Insofar as we can call certain economic policies “marxist” or “socialist”, you could try looking at policies being put into place in Bolivia or Venezuela – experiments with cooperative ownership, redistribution of land to the workers. If I happened to be a member of the “working class”, all things held equal I’d be far better off in a state which wanted to empower me with ownership over the means of production.

It’s nearly impossible for bourgeois liberals to see any value in “communism”, partially because the examples are set up with such dishonesty, and partially because it is in their economic interest to maintain the idea that capitalism is the only viable economic system, even if it destroys the planet.

anon April 25, 2011 at 6:31 pm

“So you are waiting for a new government that has Marxist economic policies, but still has democratic legitimacy and respects human rights and the freedom of speech?”

Yes. That’s what a dictatorship of the proletariat could look like – a democracy within the context of worker owned means of production, rather than capitalist owned production.

If you tried actually reading Marx, you’d know that there is not really such a thing as a “Marxist economic policy”, unless “marxist” is being used to mean “Soviet” or “Maoist”. Neither the USSR nor Maoist or post-maoist china were “communist”, because the first tenant of communism is worker-owned production, and neither state practiced that.

Things which we might count as “marxist economic policies”, like land redistribution, or experiments with co-operative ownership, are no more “marxist” than they are “socialist” or “anarchist”, and don’t have anything more to do with Marx than with any other 19th century leftists.

anon April 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Incidentally, Pinker has pretty lousy politics himself. He gave a presentation at TED arguing that the 20th century was the most peaceful on record, and he’s explicitly supported bourgeois democracy against a form of anarchist organization on the basis of a belief that average people are too stupid to participate in governance.

. April 25, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Steven Pinker on the myth of violence

Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

Steven Pinker on language and thought

In an exclusive preview of his book The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker looks at language and how it expresses what goes on in our minds — and how the words we choose communicate much more than we realize.

Steven Pinker chalks it up to the blank slate

Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate argues that all humans are born with some innate traits. Here, Pinker talks about his thesis, and why some people found it incredibly upsetting.

. April 25, 2011 at 11:15 pm

“According to non-governmental organizations that keep such statistics, since 1945 in Europe and the Americas there has been a steep decline in interstate wars, in deadly ethnic riots or pogroms and in military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, there’s been a steep decline in deaths in interstate wars. The yellow bars here show the number of deaths per war per year from 1950 to the present. And, as you can see, the death rate goes down from 65,000 deaths per conflict per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 deaths per conflict per year in this decade, as horrific as it is. Even in the year scale one can see a decline of violence. Since the end of the Cold War there have been fewer civil wars, fewer genocides — indeed, a 90 percent reduction since post-World War II highs — and even a reversal of the 1960s uptick in homicide and violent crime. This is from the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics: you can see that there is a fairly low rate of violence in the ’50s and the ’60s, then it soared upward for several decades and began a precipitous decline, starting in the 1990s, so that it went back almost to the level that was last enjoyed in 1960. President Clinton, if you’re here, thank you.”

Milan April 25, 2011 at 11:38 pm

He gave a presentation at TED arguing that the 20th century was the most peaceful on record

Do you think that claim is factually incorrect?

He doesn’t comment on whether the 20th century was the most peaceful ever. He claims the proportion of the population dying by violence in hunter-gatherer societies was significantly higher than in the world as a whole during the 20th century:

“Here is a graph that he put together showing the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in a number of foraging or hunting and gathering societies. The red bars correspond to the likelihood that a man will die at the hands of another man, as opposed to passing away of natural causes, in a variety of foraging societies in the New Guinea Highlands and the Amazon Rainforest. And they range from a rate of almost a 60 percent chance that a man will die at the hands of another man to, in the case of the Gebusi, only a 15 percent chance. The tiny little blue bar in the lower left hand corner plots the corresponding statistic from United States and Europe in the 20th century, and includes all the deaths of both World Wars. If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million.”

He also claims that “there was a decline from at least two orders of magnitude in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present”.

anon April 26, 2011 at 1:10 am

“Do you think that claim is factually incorrect?”

No. If the claim was factually incorrect I would be critical of TED and his editors, not him.

. April 26, 2011 at 2:58 pm

The Workers’ Party is a democratic, secular, socialist, republican party.

The fundamental aim of the Workers’ Party is to achieve and maintain the democratic rights and freedoms of all citizens through the ownership and control by the citizens of the social and material resources and the economic mechanisms of the country.

Our concept of freedom and democracy flows from the historic declaration of the French Revolution that all men and women are free and equal. It is this concept which inspired so many great Irishmen and Irishwomen from Wolfe Tone to James Connolly to seek the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and to take up the fight on behalf of the majority of the people – the working class.

Peace, Work, Democracy and Class Politics are the guiding principles on which our activities are based. We will continue to educate the working class to recognise the value of class consciousness and to organise and agitate for the democratic rights of all citizens in society.

Our vision of the future is of an Ireland free from the injustices of unemployment and poverty, free from the dangers of sectarianism, free from the root cause of inequality – capitalism.

The Workers’ Party vision of Ireland is of a people united in a democratic, secular, socialist republic; a republic which acts in the interests of all its citizens and not for a wealthy few; a republic which cherishes all its citizens equally and which will eliminate the exploitation of the working class; a secular state which respects the rights of all citizens to their own religious beliefs but which will not allow the domination of any religion over government or society; a democratic state which encourages its citizens to participate in decision making at all levels of society, which enhances the cultural life of all citizens and which guarantees and protects the rights and freedom of expression; a socialist state which actively promotes, protects and develops the rights of its citizens, to meaningful work, to a good education, to a first class health service and to a decent home.

Finally, our objectives and efforts are to achieve a better world for all peole; to transform a world which enslaves two thirds of its people and condemns them to a life of poverty by capital, to a world which puts people before bureaucracy; a world which values humanity before profits; a world of greater freedom and democracy yet to be developed; a world of Peace, Democracy and Socialism.

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=95207452468

http://www.workerspartyireland.net/

Milan April 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm

No. If the claim was factually incorrect I would be critical of TED and his editors, not him.

So you think the claim is true, but it makes you unhappy for some reason?

How is that Pinker’s problem, as opposed to yours?

anon April 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Do you think it is only the truth or falsity of factual claims that has political or moral importance? I think he spins the claim as a justification for the systems we currently have. Implicitly, if the relative amount of violence is declining, this suggests we are doing something right, right? The moral implications of the claim are separate from whether the facts he cites are correct.

anon May 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm

The legacies of communism are the gulags, the Berlin Wall, and Tiananmen Square.

anon May 12, 2011 at 8:45 am

Blaming the Berlin Wall on Marx is like blaming the Deir-Yassim massacre on Moses, or the Sabra and Shatila massacres on Jesus, or American support for dictatorships around the world on Adam Smith.

. September 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm

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