The mass ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism, represented a profound degradation of reason. Yet these ideologies reveal more than we would like to admit about our own political extremes and current direction in the world.
Nazism and Communism have multiple origins.
The American diplomat Robert Strausz-Hupé (1903-2002), a realist of foreign policy, considered that it was symbolically no coincidence that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published their “Communist Manifesto” in 1848 — the year of failed democratic revolutions in Europe and the last time when liberalism and nationalism “fought on the same side of the barricades”.
If this rupture had not happened – if the uprisings of 1848 had succeeded across the continent – there might not have been World War I, and therefore no Vladimir Lenin and no Adolf Hitler.
But, there was something even more fundamental than the short-lived failure of 1848 that brought about the ideological horrors of the 20th century: technology.
The tens of millions of “dispossessed of the industrial revolution”, in Strausz-Hupé’s words, have become stupid infantrymen of class and race war, encouraged by the new force of the mass media.
“As policy evolves towards several continental systems, and technology accentuates the strategic importance of large, contiguous areas. Thus, the era of overseas empires and free world trade closes.
If this reasoning is pushed to its absolute conclusion, the national state is also a thing of the past, and the future belongs to the giant state.
Many nations will be locked in a few vast compartments. But in each of these one people, controlling a strategic area, will be master of the others.”
– Geopolitics: The Struggle for Space and Power (1942).
It is impossible to imagine Hitler and Stalin, except in the context of industrialisation, which worked everything from tanks and railroads, to radio and the news.
Propaganda, after all, has a distinct twentieth-century resonance, being an integral part of communications technology. See: Edward Bernays.
Technology has never stopped evolving, and the roots of our current crisis lie in what went wrong in the 20th century. Not only the technology itself, but the societal impacts of this technology.
The ‘hive mind’ has always been the biggest threat to a free and open society.
Nazism and Communism shared two decisive elements: crowd safety and the desire for purity.
However, Canetti’s book shows the real mechanics of this process.
The crowd, says Canetti, emerges from the lonely individual’s need to conform to others. Because he/her cannot exercise dominance alone, they exercise it through a crowd that speaks with one voice.
The urge of the crowd is always to grow, consuming all hierarchies, even if they feel persecuted and demand retaliation. The crowd considers itself to be entirely pure, having attained the highest virtue.
Thus, one of the purposes of the mob is to hunt down the insufficiently virtuous. Crowd tyranny has many aspects, but Canetti says its most egregious form is that of the ‘questioner’ and the ‘accuser’:
“When used as a power intrusion,” the accusing mob “is like a knife cutting the flesh of the victim. The questioner knows what there is to find, but he really wants to touch it and bring it to light.”
Arendt, a Holocaust survivor, isolates crowd psychology as an intellectual subject in its own right.
Crowds have been around since the dawn of time. But modern technology – first radio and newspapers, now Twitter and Facebook – has created untold prospects for mob tyranny.
This tyranny, born of a gathering of solitary people, aims at the destruction of the individual, whose existence proves his or her lack of virtue in the eyes of the crowd.
There is, however, a difference between the 20th and the 21st century.
The 20th century was an era of mass communications, often controlled by large governments, so the ideology and the intimidation that came with it was broadcast from the top down.
The 21st century has produced an inversion, where people work through digital networks to come together from the bottom up.
But while the tyranny produced has a different style, it has a similar result: intimidating dissent through a declared monopoly on virtue.
If you do not agree with us, you are not only wrong but you want it morally, and as such you must not only be exposed but destroyed. Remember, Nazism and Communism were utopian ideologies.
In the minds of their believers, they were systems of virtue, and it is precisely because of this that they opened up new vistas for tyranny.
Civilizations are built not only on intellectual and cultural foundations, but also on cruder aspects of strength and power.
The historic West, which is ultimately the freedom of the individual to rise above the crowd, survived the 20th century thanks to hard work and dedicated persistence — itself maintained by a system of individual excellence.
But social media is now immersing itself in the crowd, where it claims virtue in its purest ideological form, so that much of the media too often plays the role of Canetti’s accuser.
The thirst for purity, combined with the tyranny of social media technology in the hands of millions who have little sense of the past and tradition, threatens to create an era of the most formidable crowds in history.
The result of such mob coercion is widespread self-censorship: the cornerstone of all forms of totalitarianism.
This ultimately leads to a controlled society ruled by the bland, trivial, and mundane, wearing the lobotomised face of Channel Nine’s weekday afternoon TV.
Pure and simple evil can certainly be cured, but self-righteous conformity is more difficult to resist. Without control, this is how the West slowly dies.
The 19th-century Russian intellectual, Alexander Herzen, anticipating Spengler and writing about the failure of the democratic revolutions of 1848, delivered perhaps the most pessimistic of warnings:
“Modern Western thought will pass into and become part of history, have its influence and place, just as our bodies will pass into the composition of grass, sheep, chops and men. We don’t like that kind of immortality, but what should we do with it?”
This is what we are fighting against.
As medical globalisation naturally plunges the West into the intersecting currents of other civilisations, and extreme forms of identity politics trample on individual rights, both historical liberalism and traditional conservatism has the task of infinitely pushing back Herzen’s vision.
Historical liberalism in particular, as a champion of individual action, berates all ideologies and the fate Herzen had in mind.
The direction of the story is unknowable, so we have no choice but to keep fighting.
After all, the world we enjoyed until recent history was not a given. It was earned with hard work.
For more TOTT News, follow us for exclusive content:
Facebook — Facebook.com/TOTTNews
YouTube — YouTube.com/TOTTNews
Instagram — Instagram.com/TOTTNews
Twitter — Twitter.com/EthanTOTT