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February 27, 2008



I think it's common to note that if you go far enough in one direction or another, you come back around the other side, which implies most extremisms are in some sense close.

Nathan Smith

That's often said, but is it true? Or is that just a way for those who are sympathetic to the revolutionary left to say that terrible crimes are committed by both sides, it's nothing specially bad about communism that makes those things happen? "Nazism was similar to communism in its substance as well as in its methods" may be more parsimonious and easier to fit with the historical record than "Nazism was somehow the *opposite* of communism, yet, paradoxically, behaved in a similar fashion."

Can you think of other cases in which "the extremes meet"? It's a bit counter-intuitive.


I agree with Nato on this. What extremes have in common are the very things that make us label them as extreme: genocide/mass-murder, strong limits on freedom, injustice, corruption, etc. Even Libertarianism taken to the extreme (anarchy) would exhibit similar characteristics to other ideologies taken to the extreme. I wonder what form extreme Democracy would take? Populism? It's difficult to imagine an extreme Democracy, but surely it must be theoretically possible, no?


To maintain an extreme ideology, those in power pretty much always resort to the same things regardless of the particular ideology. As a separate claim, I find a very similar psychology (and often the same view, worded differently) in most of those who approach the political world in a totalizing, radical way.

In any case, "socialism" defined broadly, has been around through all of written history, in the form of the individual existing for the benefit of the institution, whether a state, a church, the proletariat or whatever. Any radical idea that isn't temporally abstemious is bound to end up being pretty much the same. To a great extent, I would describe totalizing socialism as a kind of fascism rather than the other way around, since it doesn't really make room for the individual. There are versions that are supposed to avoid this result and so I would say they are logically divisible, none of those versions are plausible in the real world, and many (participatory economics, for example) seem to rely on distributed fascism, as if that was somehow better.

Nathan Smith

"Even Libertarianism taken to the extreme (anarchy) would exhibit similar characteristics to other ideologies taken to the extreme."

Umm, that's certainly not valid. Anarchy may be violent, but it's not at all the same thing as a concentration camp. An extreme libertarian government, more or less by definition, wouldn't establish concentration camps or run inquisitorial ideological witch-hunts.

It seems to me that what is called "extreme" is arbitrary. Americans' insistence on free speech even for the most subversive views might seem like extremism to some; to the civically educated American it's just common sense. I think you have to focus on methods and content, and in those respects fascism and communism deserve to be classified together, while regimes that respect individual liberties belong in some other part of the classification system. I don't see any justification for setting up a spectrum which makes fascism and communism *opposite* extremes, and putting regimes that have totally different properties with respect to both substance and methods, somehow, in the middle.


"Anarchy may be violent, but it's not at all the same thing as a concentration camp."

The differences, ultimately, aren't all that large. Maintaining "true" anarchy isn't possible. People immediately coalesce into camps for protection and security, and those willing and able to use the most force control the society by, inevitably, brutal means. "Pure" communism, after all, allows everyone to do what they like with only moral suasion to guarantee they continue to work within the communist (non)system. I suppose avowed fascism is only distinguishable in that it says right off the bat that society's discontents (or whomever) need to be quarantened, controlled or exterminated.

Of course, Nathan assumes that extreme libertarianism isn't anarchism but some minimalist (but reified) government. That is, of course, not all that extreme. Likewise, "socialist" governments are usually pretty constrained in terms of how collectivist they get relative to the "pure" socialist society. In the middle ground is where some ideologies become close enough to reality for execution to expose the gulfs between them. Further, only in the middle ground do radical ideas stably-derivable from specific historical movements so that they have a consistent form. True extremists do all sorts of random things that don't fit the archetypes. E.g. Saddam wasn't much of an ideological extremist in his socialism; he just wanted to be like Stalin. Meanwhile Pol Pot's "communist" Khmer Rouge was neither Marxist nor Maoist in its intentional and systematic genocide against urban people and the educated before it was overthrown by other communists, after which the US supported Pol Pot's insurgents against the Vietnamese-installed government.

Of all the one-dimensional oversimplifactions available, the circular political spectrum seems to allow for this most easily. Redistributive semi-capitalist "socialism" (thinking here of Egypt under Nasser) is on the opposite side of the circle from ultra-minimalist libertarianism (doesn't exist, but Hong Kong perhaps comes closest). The US is, approximately, most opposite communism, while Europe just to our left is most opposite communism's neighbor facism. Partly because our political narratives take our segment of the strip as the center, of course, we describe the two a little like Europeans might Hawaii and Fiji, with the former "all the way west" and the latter "all the way east." This is all the more stable a narrative because the two have been in historically opposing camps.

At the end of the day, of course, I agree leftists praising Mao are about as appropriate as rightists saying "Well, I don't agree with Hitler but he had some good ideas." Calling Castro a hero of the Left is only mildly less repulsive.

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