It is impossible to deny that communists tend to receive much better treatment from pundits and historians than do Nazis, despite the fact that the former piled up even more bodies in the past century than the latter.
Having been a life-long communist is often depicted as reflective of idealism, however misguided, whereas any association with Nazism, even at an early age and if later disavowed, forever disqualifies one from polite company.
The Guardian, a respected left-leaning media source, just last week ran a flattering portrayal of Communist Party USA on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, with the suggestion that the rising popularity of democratic socialism would open up new opportunities for expanding its influence into the American mainstream. The article depicted the CPUSA as a natural partner of American progressives and liberals on behalf of reform causes, without commenting in any way on its long-standing Stalinist orientation.
That the Western democracies fought the worst war in human history against fascism accounts, of course, for part of this discrepancy in treatment, with Stalin's otherwise unsavory Soviet Union a crucial if awkward ally in that campaign.
Still, it is relevant to point out that during the 45-year long Cold War that followed defeat of the Axis powers, many Western intellectuals either straddled the fence or tilted toward the Soviet side, hence the once-common phrase "fellow travelers" (those who weren't actual party members but routinely offered up apologies for Soviet behavior when needed, which was often).
At first glance, this seems, again, contradictory and reflective of an ideological double standard. After all, both National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism were totalitarian ideologies viscerally hostile to and bent upon the destruction of liberal democracy, with Stalin's regime, building on the sturdy police-state foundation laid by Lenin, established both before and serving as a model in many respects for the Third Reich (despite the titanic falling-out later on the Eastern front).
Ultimately, the reason that the crimes committed by communists count for less, even if adding up to more, can most likely be found in the differing rigor and content of the two belief systems.
Fascism was always less theoretically coherent and systematic than Marx's "historical materialism," with the latter's patina of scientific certainty, making it catnip for intellectuals requiring overarching, deterministic explanations for historical experience (one consequence of which is that it is still possible to meaningfully call someone a communist, while fascist has become merely an all-purpose pejorative flung at anything someone doesn't like).
Even more important has been communism's utopian appeal, its promise of a world of equality and full human freedom, a glorious "heaven on Earth" as the last stage of history itself. The triumph of the revolutionary class, the proletariat, would mean the end of class struggle, inequalities flowing from private ownership of property, and the full satisfaction of basic human needs.
In stark contrast, fascism was defined by bloodlust, hyper-nationalism and ethnic hatred. A world in which Marx's vision triumphed would have been a wonderful one for all; a world in which Nazism had won out would have been wonderful for the Aryan race and hell on Earth for everyone else. The goal of communism, although obviously never achieved, was human liberation; the goal of fascism was human enslavement.
In short, communism could appeal to anyone wanting a better world than the money-grubbing, inevitably imperfect one that capitalism presents, whereas Nazism, with its hyper-militarism, promised only never-ending war and extermination based on ethnic/racial criteria.
The crimes of communism allegedly came from misapplication (likely flowing from infeasibility); the crimes of fascism came from intent.
Almost certainly because of its more idealistic core and scientific pretensions, communism's appeal would be more enduring than that of fascism (fascist tendencies might have continued, but overt fascist movements largely died off after Hitler's suicide and Auschwitz); indeed, long after the Soviet system was revealed as the giant concentration camp it had always been, what the late Paul Hollander called "political pilgrims" continued to search for a communism they could believe in, and at least temporarily found it in succession in places like Beijing, Hanoi, and Havana (and most recently, if pathetically, in Caracas).
Still, few would have predicted just a quarter-century ago, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismal end of the Soviet experiment, that socialism would by now have made tremendous gains in popularity in a country long assumed to be structurally immune to it, a circumstance which also points us to an additional difference between communism and fascism.
All things considered, the appeal of both ultimately flows from the manner in which each provided convenient enemies to satisfy the basic human need to hate. In the case of the communists it was the "bourgeoisie" (or that Stalinist offshoot, the "kulaks," or these days the "1 percent"); in the case of the Nazis, the allegedly perfidious Jews.
Communism, however, has proven more resilient than fascism because it allows for people to express that hatred while claiming to serve humanity.
Fascism, being simply hate unvarnished, lacks such a disguise.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 07/01/2019