Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.5: Nationalism, Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)
    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Analyze nationalism.
    • Discuss the central concepts of Marx’s political thought.
    • Trace the development of Marxism-inspired political ideologies in the West.
    • Assess the varieties of fascism and authoritarianism.
    • Describe the core tenets of contemporary Chinese communism.

    Nationalists see a national group as endowed with a distinctive culture and set of ties with other members. These ties often stir a nearly spiritual attachment to the national group. This attachment is often based on shared blood, history, and soil. One of the first defenders of nationalism as a political ideology, German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), argued that if each nation looked inward and celebrated its own distinctive contributions, the world could enjoy international peace.31 Other defenders of nationalism have seen it as a rallying cry for independence movements that freed non-Western regions from Western control, as in Vietnam and Algeria, both of which fought long wars to end French colonial rule. However, nationalism has also been used to assert that one nation is superior to all others, and this has stimulated social exclusion and war.

    The Development of Marxism in the West

    In the 19th century, German writer Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) condemned nationalism for its power to distract people from the economic struggles within and across nations and from how some individuals economically exploit members of the same “nation.”

    Marx predicted that a global revolution would upend the whole of modern society and eventually result in communism—a condition of peace, justice, freedom from repressive laws and political supervision, and equality of material resources in a society without economic classes. Inspired in part by Rousseau, Marx held that in such a society, the inherent human potential for living in peaceful solidarity with all and exercising creative freedom would be fully realized. When Marx sought to sketch the nature of communism, he emphasized this creative freedom:

    “In communist society, where . . . each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise [poetry, art, music, etc.] after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”32

    Unlike Locke, for whom the free market worked to ensure overall prosperity for all, for Marx and Engels, the internal operations of a free-market economy grounded on private property and the free exchange of goods and services made communism inevitable. According to this vision, in a free market society, most people must sell things to secure money to buy the necessities of life. This creates competition among producers, who eventually compete to offer the lowest prices. One way to do this is to invest in labor-saving machinery that lowers the cost per product by lowering the producer’s labor costs. This leads to growing unemployment, and those who retain their jobs are paid lower and lower wages, all to keep product costs low. This results in the general impoverishment of the mass of society.

    The front cover of the July 16 issue of the Masses magazine shows a sketch of a muscular figure swinging a sledgehammer. The cost of the magazine is 10 cents.
    Figure 3.6 The Masses, published monthly in New York from 1911 to 1917, focused on labor struggles, women’s rights, and other issues that were considered radical at the time. (credit: “The Masses, July 1916” by The Masses Publishing Co./The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University, Public Domain)

    According to Marx, in an industrialized society, most people become members of the proletariat, or those who sell their labor to a few large companies. A few are among the bourgeoisie, a group of middle-class merchants, accountants, lawyers, and other professionals who sell small consumer products or professional expertise, but their numbers will eventually shrink. Marxist theorists today see this process playing out as mechanized production and the vast use of information technology renders many once relatively high-paying jobs obsolete.

    As the workers and those struggling to find steady work become increasingly numerous and increasingly miserable, they will inevitably bond over a recognition of their common economic condition—what Marx calls class consciousness—and will come together to demand change.

    They will seize the privately held technologies and swiftly and violently act to capture government power. This represents what Marxists call the dictatorship of the proletariat, a temporary period when the workers would organize, take control of the state, and engage in the cleanup operations needed to usher in communism. During this period, the proletariat should control all political speech to prevent counterrevolution and work to upend the social relations of production—that is, social norms such as marriage that have been shaped by the capitalist economy.

    Marx believed that the forces of capitalism were well advanced in Germany, and he anticipated that German workers would realize his vision for a workers’ revolution, which in turn would extend to neighboring countries. Yet this revolution failed to occur. Why?

    Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) argued that the owners of the means of production weaponize culture against the workers. They manufacture a set of cultural norms through their control of the media, churches, and schools, asserting what Gramsci called hegemony, or domination by means of the prevailing culture. Hegemonic cultural norms define it as unacceptable to be a revolutionary and acceptable for workers to be content with their lot in life, with their small holdings of private property and the freedoms they enjoy in their private lives, and with the conspicuous entertainments on offer (which are full of rags-to-riches stories that distract them from their oppression and encourage them to view the economic status quo as one of economic opportunity). The hegemonic culture also celebrates patriotism, which creates a false sense that owners and workers are on the same team. Perhaps most dangerously for Marxists, the prevailing culture manufactured by the wealthy elite reinforces religious beliefs and practices, which only divert attention from worker oppression and instill passivity in the system of private property by preaching such commandments as “thou shall not steal.” In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci argues that communism as a political cause “will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”33 By capturing these culture-producing institutions, the wealthy elite can transform culture so that it celebrates ways of thinking and acting that undermine the norms that discourage a communist revolution.

    The Russian Marxist Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) developed a somewhat different answer to the question of why a revolution had failed to occur in the industrialized nations of Europe. Lenin argued that the workers needed a vanguard, a small set of dedicated and merciless revolutionary activists working on their behalf to seize the state and take control of the economy. Without a vanguard, the capitalist forces that controlled the economy would always be able, as Lenin believed they did in Germany, to forestall the general impoverishment of the masses. A small group of dedicated activists, on the other hand, could seize power by the force of their revolutionary zeal and then act on the workers’ behalf to break the neck of the capitalist state.34


    Inside Gates of Soviet Russia (1914–1919)

    This newsreel footage shows what life was like for peasants in Soviet Russia under Lenin.

    Lenin advocated for this position in Russia, which was underdeveloped in terms of industrial machinery. Because the Leninists who seized power in Russia in November 1917 believed that highly productive machinery was necessary to provide such plenty that people would think it natural to share with one another, their key tasks were rapid industrialization, consciousness-raising among the workers, and the suppression of any forces resisting the move toward communism. Lenin still held an international vision and hoped to see parallel revolutions in the industrialized world.

    After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Joseph Stalin, and later rulers of the Soviet Union took these objectives to greater extremes, demanding rigid conformity with Marxist ideology and conducting a state-mobilized commitment to build Russian industry, no matter the cost in lives or to the natural environment. Stalin advanced the idea that while worker revolutions in states outside the Soviet Union may take a very long time to arise, in the meantime, a society based on shared wealth and collective prosperity could be built in Russia. The Soviet Union could defend itself from the foreign interventions that Lenin had argued would inevitably come from capitalist countries.35 In pursuit of these objectives, the Soviet Union’s government under Stalin effectively became a form of totalitarianism, where the state sought to control the totality of its citizens’ lives as a means to achieve state objectives.

    20th-Century Fascists

    Soviet communism was not the only form of totalitarianism that marked the 20th century. In the early 1920s, fascism, an ideology that combines reverence for the state with nationalism, anti-communism, and skepticism of the parliamentary form of government, first emerged in Italy and Spain. Under a parliamentary form of government, parties are elected to a legislative chamber, and the chamber, by a majority vote, selects members of the executive branch. By the 1900s in Italy, Spain, and other European nations, an array of different parties had emerged and been elected to parliament, making it very hard to form parliamentary majorities and select an executive branch capable of achieving results that would satisfy large sections of the population. In part in response to the challenges of governing under such fragmented parliaments, fascism sought to inspire nationalist loyalty to a single leader who would forcefully get “positive” results.36

    The Nazism that governed Germany from 1934 to 1945 was a particularly vile expression of fascism. Inspired by the Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, Germany’s Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) developed a fascist ideology that sought to consolidate political power in the hands of one ruler. Nazism opposed much in modern life—especially the freedoms that Germans enjoyed under the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), which Hitler found decadent. But in other ways, Nazism was very modern. It embraced industrialization and rejected any lingering privileges of hereditary aristocracy in Germany. It sought to undermine culturally entrenched forms of religion in Germany, going so far as to advance its own modified form of the faith, led by the Nazi-controlled Reich bishop, which it called German Christianity.37 A form of totalitarianism, Nazism sought the coordination of the whole of society around Nazi ideology.

    To these views, Nazism added a horrific form of race-based hatred of Jews and other races, such as Slavs (the native population of eastern Europe). It justified this racism on the basis of what it saw as modern “science.” Nazi racism mitigated its commitment to nationalism and supplemented it with an appeal to all “Aryans,” seeking alliances beyond Germany with other “Aryan” nations. Fueled by extreme hatred, the Nazis carried out the Holocaust, the systematic and partially successful attempt to exterminate all Jews and others they deemed inferior, resulting in the murder of many millions of people in Europe.38 To date, the Holocaust is the worst genocide in human history.


    Mein Kampf: Hitler’s Nazi Philosophy

    In his manifesto, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler articulated Nazi philosophy, which aimed, under the unquestioned authority of the führer, to exterminate those who did not belong to what Nazis considered to be the master race.

    Mid-20th-Century Western Authoritarianism

    Several European countries in the 20th century sought to avoid fascism and communism, yet resisted adopting the liberal tradition. During the 20th century, Portugal came to be governed by the principles of authoritarianism, an ideology that may allow freedoms in nonpolitical life but does not permit any political challenge to the ruler. From 1932 to 1968, the authoritarian prime minister of Portugal, António Salazar, attempted to create a state ruled exclusively by his own party that would permit a substantial (though incomplete) measure of economic and personal freedoms and respect for human rights. Portugal was considered a safe haven from Nazi oppression, and the government undertook efforts to grant false visas and asylum for Jews, especially those from eastern Europe. Portugal tolerated religious dissent, and it had a relatively free and open economy.39 Defenders justified the principle of authoritarian rule on the basis that the democratic selection of rulers was just too dangerous. Would the people be consumed by the passions aroused by the Nazis as they sought to defeat communism and protect what they called the higher race? Or would they be captivated by the call for equality, spearheaded by the working class, and embrace Soviet-style communism? To avoid either, Portugal instituted an undemocratic authoritarian system governed by a leader who, it was hoped, would rule with moderation and sensitivity to basic rights.

    Contemporary Authoritarianism: Egypt

    In recent years, authoritarianism has expanded in parts of the world. In 2011 and 2012, the Arab Spring emerged in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia to remove authoritarian leaders and transform these states into representative democracies. In Egypt, uprisings led to the removal from office of longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In the elections that followed, Mohamed Morsi, a member of an Islamic extremist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president. Amid protests following his election, former military general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power. Sisi has since consolidated his power to ensure his unopposed rule, having justified this assumption of unchecked power with the same argument advanced by the authoritarian ruler António Salazar: the people cannot be trusted to select appropriate leaders. This judgment is advanced as a serious ideological position in large parts of the world.


    How the Arab Spring Started and How It Affected the World

    The Arab Spring started with a single protest in Tunisia in 2011 and spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

    Contemporary Chinese Communism

    Although the Soviet Union, which based its government on ideas inspired by Marx, collapsed in 1991, communism persists as a political ideology. In fact, the most populous country on Earth, the People’s Republic of China, is currently governed by a regime committed to a version of communist ideology. In China, no individual who is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party may hold political office.

    Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party seized power in 1949. Mao, who served as the premier of China until his death in 1976, developed a distinctive form of Marxist-Leninist ideology that came to be known as Maoism. Maoism held that the Chinese peasantry, and not the industrial workers, could and should be the agents ushering in communism; all that they needed was to be led, shaped, and molded by a sufficiently powerful political party. The peasants, Mao argued, had many of the attributes that Marx believed would lead to a revolution and to the creation of the communist condition. Mao contended that the peasants’ poverty made them miserable, their ignorance made them malleable, and their supposed natural combativeness made them open to embracing change through revolutionary struggle. What the peasants lacked that Marx believed the urban industrial workers had was a team-spiritedness and a shared class consciousness. Hence, for Mao, what the masses needed to mold them into a revolutionary force was a strong revolutionary party (what Lenin called a vanguard) with exclusive political power.

    Mao viewed urban, intellectual groups with special suspicion, and from 1966 to 1976, he made them targets for persecution in the Cultural Revolution, a movement led mostly by student-run battalions of militant activists known as Red Guards who worked to silence dissent. Because China during Mao’s reign had a population of over 800 million, Mao felt that these measures were the only way to achieve the goals of the Chinese Communist Party.

    A poster shows a variety of people representing soldiers, farmers, industrial workers, and young people, all facing and leaning slightly in the same direction, on a red background. The left side of the poster is dominated by a gold profile of Mao Zedong. The person in the foreground holds a book that bears the same image of Mao. Chinese letters are also written on the poster.
    Figure 3.7 In this Chinese propaganda poster, peasant workers, soldiers, and students all follow Mao and his teachings, as symbolized by the book bearing Mao’s likeness that the worker carries in the foreground. (credit: “Advance Courageously under the Guidance of the Red Flag of Mao Zedong Thought” by Pang Ka/Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    Before Mao died in 1976, he declared that China was in the “initial stage of socialism.” His successor, Deng Xiaoping, argued that although great work had been achieved under Mao, the goal of a classless society was still a ways off, and therefore, economic experimentation in alternative ways to achieve the communist goals was justifiable.40

    Instead of controlling every aspect of economic production, Deng instituted a policy, still ongoing in China today, that allows private property and free markets in a controlled manner. The policy primarily allows consumer items (always under the strict supervision of the Communist Party) as a way to achieve increased economic productivity. The Chinese government has also introduced limited religious freedoms to enhance individuals’ life satisfaction in order to increase their economic efficiency. After the productive forces of society become sufficient to meet everyone’s needs, Deng promised, communism would emerge.

    As communism arose, Deng argued, China would shift away from a profit-based economy to one in which creating and distributing products people need, rather than profiteering, would drive economic output. According to Deng, at this final stage, religion would also disappear because the product-based economy would alleviate human misery, eliminating the need for the “opiate” of religion. Finally, the Communist Party’s firm control over the population would come to an end. This is similar to Rousseau’s suggestion that when people become liberated from the drive for personal profit, they will be freed not only from economic and political repression but also from the way it warped their psychology. For communist states, at least in theory, the ultimate goal is liberation; repression is not an intrinsic value, only the necessary means to the desired end point of genuine human liberty.

    When the current leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, assumed office in 2012, he reaffirmed China’s adherence to utilizing market freedoms to achieve the final goal of communism. At the same time, he emphasized the importance of maintaining strong party control. To this end, he has increased state regulation of religion, education, and the media. Most religions face increasing persecution under Xi, but because he sees the traditional Chinese belief system of Confucianism, which emphasizes social cooperation, order, and hierarchy, as a complement to Communist Party goals, he has tolerated its reemergence. Primarily, Xi has encouraged the Chinese populace to derive meaning and moral guidance from a firm attachment to Marxist ideals. To deepen support for the Communist Party, the regime has touted the dramatic reduction in poverty that has occurred in China over the last several decades.41

    3.5: Nationalism, Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?