Commentary

Witch Doctors and Thugs

When President Bush recently used the phrase “Islamic fascists,” there was much more critical attention paid to the first word than to the second. Yet the reference to fascism was more significant in many respects and arguably more appropriate. The dictatorial theocracies of the Taliban and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could properly be described as fascist, but so could the secular genocidal dictatorships of Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin.

A few of President Bush’s supporters thought he used the word “fascism” to mean what Arabs refer to as anti-Zionism (because Arabs are Semites). Yet not all fascists are racists and not all racists are fascists. Benito Mussolini was not hostile to Jews until October 1938, when it became politically opportune to placate Adolf Hitler. Italian and Spanish fascists were not members of Vidkun Quisling’s “Nordic race” or Hitler’s misnamed “Aryans” (a linguistic group of Indo-Europeans, notably Iranians). The only thing all fascists had and have in common is not bigotry but statism — the absolute rejection of individual rights and freedom. As Mussolini put it, “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Eugen Weber’s 1964 book “Varieties of Fascism” began by noting, “The 19th century had seen the heyday of liberalism, the rise of parliamentary and democratic institutions, the affirmation of private enterprise and individual liberty. The 20th century would be dominated by tendencies — collectivistic, authoritarian, antiparliamentary and antidemocratic — which stressed elitism against equality, activism and irrationalism against reason and contract, the organic community against the constitutional society.”

Mr. Weber’s reference to collectivist authoritarian regimes and movements included fascism, but obviously applied as well to communism, which was then powerful in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Vietnam. The similarities were later made explicit in James A. Gregor’s “The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century.”

Fascism is a collectivist system in which some megalomanical gang leader such as Mussolini, Hitler or “Papa Doc” Duvalier seizes totalitarian political power for life and then uses raw force to steal property and to murder and imprison people at will. Communism, by contrast, is a collectivist system in which some megalomanical gang leader like Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceausescu or Fidel Castro seizes totalitarian political power for life and then uses raw force to steal property and to murder and imprison people at will.

Fascist dictators usually place gigantic pictures and statues of themselves on every major street corner. So do communist dictators. And so do theocrats who aspire to be fascist dictators, such as Sheik Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah (the “Party of God”) and Osama bin Laden.

Once they seize power, fascist dictators end up trying to establish political dynasties, such as Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier, succeeded by Baby Doc. Communist dictators, on the other hand, end up trying to establish political dynasties, such as Kim Il-Sung being succeeded by Kim Jong-il. Fidel Castro likewise intends for Cuba and its serfs to remain the private property of the Castro family.

A hereditary totalitarian monarchy is not a radical new idea — it was quite familiar to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Yet Comandante Castro, like Col. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, has gotten away with describing his military dictatorship as “revolutionary” rather than reactionary. Fidel describes his brother Raoul as “more radical” because he has murdered even more people than Fidel has. By that standard, Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao must have been truly progressive fellows. Not to mention Hitler and Attila the Hun.

Communist dictatorships are allegedly so entirely different from fascist dictatorships that our schoolchildren have long been indoctrinated to categorize communist gang leaders as being “the left” as opposed to fascist gang leaders on “the right.” But this left-right dichotomy describes only the rhetorical rationale for statism, not meaningful differences. Labels aside, it is about conquest and power.

Those claiming to be dictators on behalf of “The People” are called communist or socialist “leaders” — as in the “Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea” or the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” Those claiming to be dictators on behalf of “The Nation” are called fascists. Yet Cuba, North Korea and Libya are as nationalistic and xenophobic as fascists.

If an authoritarian government gives orders to businessmen and workers, it is called fascism or a “planned economy” (socialism). Hitler thus boasted in 1935 of having established “a planned provision of labor, a planned regulation of the market, a planned control of prices and wages.” If an authoritarian government actually steals and runs most businesses, and is therefore everyone’s boss, it is called communism. “In a country where the sole employer is the state,” explained Leon Trotsky, “opposition means death by slow starvation.”

Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher, thought most of history had been dominated by witchdoctors and thugs (Attila). Thugs rule by force, while witchdoctors come up with clever excuses for thuggery. In the past century, the witchdoctors were often promoting secular theologies — vicious ideas such as eugenics and class warfare that became “movements” embraced with irrational fervor. Marxism became “the opium of the intellectuals,” in Raymond Aron’s words, blinding many to the realities of Stalinist oppression and murder.

Many fascists of the 1930s were Christians, such as Leon Degrelle’s Christus-Rex movement in Belgium; some of Mussolini’s early followers were Jews. Yet to speak of Christian or Jewish fascism sounds like using more words than necessary. There is nothing inherently dictatorial about Islam, as demonstrated by predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Tunisia.

Until recently, in fact, the Middle East’s leading witchdoctors were mainly secular socialists — proponents of Pan-Arabism, such as Saddam’s Ba’athists. The recent combination of nationalist and religious rhetoric by Islamic clerics is quite different, involving a literally suicidal alliance of witchdoctors and thugs.

The clerics themselves are not suicidal or brave, of course. Their task is to con young people into killing themselves and others on behalf of collectivist rhetoric in general (us against them) and to assist local thugs and witchdoctors in their ambition to become dictators.

If the phrase “Islamic fascism” is to become something more serious than a gratuitous slur, its value may lie in drawing attention to the dangers of mixing brutality and murder with quasi-religious excuses, force with fraud and thugs with witchdoctors.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and is a nationally syndicated columnist.