The Great Ideas Vs. Political Totalitarianism
Published 09 Mar 2017
The European Enlightenment, French Revolution, and Victorian Liberalism shared a common vision of the individual, political life, and the ideal society. The two great political philosophies of the 20th century, fascism (Nazism) and communism, differed in their vision (of the individual, political life, and ideal society), but both produced totalitarianist societies. The European Enlightenment came about as a reaction to the feudalist worldview of the Middle Ages. Both the French Revolution and Victorian Liberalism were off-shoots of the Enlightenment. Under feudalism society was based on a hierarchy: the lord, landowner, ruled his vassals (or serfs), who worked the land. A middle class did not exist. The Enlightenment idea of freedom, “to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (Losonsky, 2001, p.1), created the public sphere where ideas could be exchanged. Public opinion became increasingly more important in the 18th and 19th centuries, which in turn gave rise to the public market place, where goods could be sold, thus creating a middle class.
Freedom was an important concept of the Enlightenment, French Revolution, and Victorian Liberalism. However, it was not the 21st century idea of freedom. The freedom that could be granted the masses “was that they recognize the moral and intellectual superiority of the few who, in virtue of a happy combination of personal gifts with accidental advantages, ought to be regarded as their natural leaders, and their guidance, not slavishly but willingly, and with an intelligent co-operation.” (Stapleton, 1998, p.80)
The two great political experiments of the 20th century, fascism and communism, stand in contrast with the great ideas of the Enlightenment, French Revolution and Victorian Liberalism for both viewed the public sphere as something to be completely controlled by the state. German fascism came about as a reaction to the depressed economic conditions which resulted from the defeat and destruction of World War One. Many Germans had a negative view of the democratic Weimar Republic, i.e. they believed the Republic could not adequately cope with the depression. “The institution of the Republic was the epitome of what German radical nationalism opposed: it represented liberal incompetence, socialist subversion, class divisiveness and international conspiracy against the German Volk.” (Kallis, 2000, p.31) The Nazi Party, under Adolph Hitler’s leadership, promised to restore Germany. Territorial expansion proved to be one of the ways that Hitler would try to bring German restoration, while ushering in a totalitarianist regime that subordinated the individual’s ideas and desires to the government.
Karl Marx and Max Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, in the 18th century, which influenced the Russian communist leader, Vladmir Lenin. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels divide industrialized societies into two classes: the proletariats and bourgeoisie. The proletariats are the workers, and the bourgeoisie are the ruling class. The goal of Marxist communism is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and putting power into the hands of the proletariat, although not the entire proletariat class, but a handful, or the ruling proletariats.
Russia under the Bolsheiviks, lead by Lenin, overthrew the Tsar and set up a communist form of government. Russia, however, had never truly become an industrialized society, and Marx wrote about the problems of industrialization. What Russia ended up implementing was a totalitarianist government that did away with private property, and implemented collectivized ownership. It can be argued that the communism of the former United Soviet Socialist Republic was never truly Marxist communism.
- Kallis, Aristotle. Fascist Ideology: Territory and Expansionism in Italy and Germany, 1922-1945. [book] Routledge, 2000.
- Losonsky, Michael. Enlightenment and Action from Descartes to Kant: Passionate Thought. [book] Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Stapleton, Julia. “James Fitzjames Stephen: Liberalism, Patriotism, and English Liberty, [journal article] Victorian Studies, Vol. 41, 1998.