Written by 12:41 Bābilim

Ishay Landa: Americanism and Communism have much in common

In your book “The Apprentice’s Wizard” you argue that liberalism and fascism share many profound similarities. On the other hand, Ryszard Legutko claims in his book “The Demon in Democracy” that contemporary liberalism has many similarities with communism. In general, could you argue that an individual’s attitude towards ideologies depends on his or hers starting point? A liberal would therefore identify similarities between fascism and communism, a right-winger between liberalism and communism, and a leftist between liberalism and fascism…

I am not familiar with the book you mention, and obviously do not know what is the author’s starting point: is it critical of liberalism? Or favorable to communism? At any rate, the argument seeing affinities between liberalism and communism is very common, and also, in my view, not completely wrong. It is important to bear in mind that in my book I do not simply link liberalism and fascism but also draw attention to the profound tensions and antinomies within the liberal tradition itself, especially between political liberalism and economic liberalism, between democracy and capitalism.  So certain forms of liberalism, emphasizing political and social rights, are indeed related to communism, and both Marx and Engels, notably, have started out as political liberals. The communism they developed might be construed as an internal critique of liberalism, born out of the realization that liberal political aims – such as civic equality, peace, progress and even free and rational debate – are seriously constrained by capitalism and will be difficult to fulfill under the rule of the bourgeoisie.

With regards to the attitude one takes, there are certainly ideological biases as well as political goals that influence the theory. And this is very much the case with fascism, that nearly all scholars reject, but interpret in drastically different ways. So yes, one’s starting point is important. But the challenge is to produce a useful explanation of historical developments that will be able to transcend as much as possible such assumptions. 

Do you believe some ideologies are totalitarian in their nature, or that any ideology can take a totalitarian form?

The term ‘totalitarian’ is itself open to debate and interpretation, of course. But approached very basically, as describing severe political repression of the subjects and dissidents on the part of the powers that be, then one will have to conclude that no political form has proven immune to this danger. However, fascism and Nazism are arguably the only openly totalitarian regimes, celebrating the right to subjugate and repress – the term was originally embraced by defenders of Italian fascism. One might say that what forms a danger for other modern ideologies, is for fascism a positive aspiration. Other ideologies deform and betray themselves when sliding into totalitarianism; fascism comes into its own when doing so.

Taking into consideration that certain “alliances” or cooperation of limited duration existed between all the main ideologies of the 20th century (for example, the alliance of the liberal US and the communist USSR against the fascist bloc), do you believe that the thesis about the overlap of liberalism and fascism is somewhat simplifying? Is it possible that the overlaps between liberalism and fascism – anti-communism being their common denominator – are just a peripheral aspect and not their true essence?

To repeat a previous point, my study by no means equates fascism with liberalism, but on the contrary focuses on the contradictions of liberalism, and places great emphasis on what is termed ‘the liberal split’ between politics and economics. The Second World-War alliance between the USSR and the liberal countries, USA and Great Britain, was partially a marriage of convenience based on strong geo-political and economic interests (notably, Great Britain’s wish to defend its empire). As a result, in the aftermath of the war the alliance proved temporary, and very quickly a new conflict began during the Cold War.  Then again, there was also an ideological affinity between the more progressive wings of US American liberalism and the Soviet Union, which was then seen by many as representing a force for egalitarianism and internationalism.  This facilitated their joint struggle against fascism. For that reason, I think it is important to take a critical distance from the views shared by many on the left that reduce ‘Americanism’ to sheer imperialism. Here, numerous fascists have correctly realized that Americanism and Communism have much in common ideologically and socially, such as the belief in the masses, in material prosperity, the pursuit of peace as an ideal, and so on and so forth. 

However, to the considerable extent that liberalism means a defense of capitalist interests and the rule of the bourgeoisie and the wealthy, it allies itself with oppressive regimes against democratic claims, as happened repeatedly, both before and after interwar fascism, from the liberal defense of Bonapartism in the mid-19th century (Walter Bagehot is one of the examples cited in the book), to the economic liberal collusion with Pinochet in Chile, and beyond. So, to the extent that economic liberalism is concerned, I would argue that the authoritarian proclivities are not a peripheral feature, but a structural one.

Could you argue that the measures enforced by the most Western countries during the pandemic – e.g., the imposition of vaccination as a prerequisite for participation in social life and other extremely restrictive measures that appeared in countries such as Austria, Australia and New Zealand – as well as the repression of protests in Canada with the termination of freedom of assembly can be interpreted as manifestations of the authoritarian tendencies of contemporary liberalism?

Not really. I think such measures were largely necessary to deal with the spread of an immensely dangerous pandemic and to defend lives. In general, rules and regulations are not necessarily a sign of dictatorial oppression, but can be rational and sensible. In all countries one is expected to obey traffic lights, for instance, and transgressors face penalties. Some ultraist anarchists see this as a threat to individual liberty, but this is patently puerile and misguided.

Is the fact that a dichotomy between illiberal and liberal democracy is today often suggested an argument supporting the case that liberalism accepts democracy only conditionally – if the outcomes are liberal?

This is a complex issue, needless to say. And again, we must consider the context: to the extent that sanctity of private property is seen as the inviolable basis of liberalism, then indeed, any democracy that pushes for redistribution of wealth, let alone for more radical measures of socialization, will be denounced as ‘anti-liberal.’ Here we face a genuine democratic deficit at the heart of capitalist society and ideology. And as shown in the book, many liberals have indeed historically preferred their economic interests and prerogatives over political democracy.

However, to the extent that ‘liberal democracy’ implies certain rules and mechanisms meant to impede the abuses of tyranny and authoritarianism – such as freedom of the press, the right to a fair trial, the separation of powers, the defense of minorities, and so on and so forth – then these cannot simply be left to the discretion of the electorate (whose decisions, as we know, are often heavily influenced by powerful corporate interests). These are, or should be, constitutional features, whose elimination will indeed mean the elimination of democracy tout court. Democracy is not simply the supposed ‘rule of the majority.’ It is also, and quite importantly, a political procedure that must be respected, just like playing football would be meaningless if one side – whose supporters might be very numerous — decides that only the other team – with fewer fans — will play with a goal.

Do you think that the growing shift of responsibility from citizens to unelected “experts” Michael Sandel wrote about in his recent book “The Tyranny of Merit” can be interpreted as suppressing democratic impulses?  Are the alleged meritocratic solutions even ideologically neutral?

I’m not an expert on this issue – pun intended. But I would agree in principle that merit cannot be the founding basis of a political order, definitely not as long as class society persists. Firstly, because it assumes that merit in judging economic and social matters can be separated from one’s class position. This eliminates from view the political differences in society. For even if we assume, say, that a given person or elite group is well suited by talent and training to determine the rate of interest, we cannot assume that the goals that will be pursued will be beneficial for all members of society. A high rate of interest, for instance, may be serviceable to employers, but detrimental to the majority of workers and consumers. So indeed, I don’t think that meritocracy can be seen as a neutral term – it is ideologically heavily laden.

Such criticisms of meritocracy are valid in situations where different interests are at play, namely in political and economic decisions. But they lose much of their legitimacy when experts are denounced across the board, and their special knowledge denied.  For instance, can one seriously argue that planes should be flown by random passengers, according to ‘democratic’ decision, and not by trained and approved pilots? We are witnessing today many cases in which legitimate concerns and suspicions about ‘the rule of experts’ as providing cover for vested interests, are feeding destructive attacks on scientific knowledge as such, as expressed, for instance, in conspiracy theories against medical recommendations, or in right-wing attacks on climate science as a ‘hoax,’ etc. So a nuanced approach to this matter seems necessary.

Interviewed by: Matija Štahan and Tomislav Kardum   

Last modified: 21. 3. 2022.