In September 2020, the City Council of Dalmine, Italy, voted in favor of a motion that, citing the horrors of the Soviet Union’s Gulags and famine, equates Nazi-fascism to Communism, and so requiring one to declare oneself anti-communist in order to use public spaces. This is an insult to the memory of the many Dalminesi Partisans. But not only that: while Dalmine is just a remote Italian city in the hands of a predominantly right-wing council, in 2019 the European Parliament proposed and approved a similar motion. Evidently, unfounded and instrumentalized anti-communism is a present and worrisome issue, one that requires reflection and resistance. To unpack everything that is wrong with Dalmine’s anti-communist motion, the local groups Associazione Nazionale Partigiani Italiani (ANPI), Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana (ARCI), and Associazioni Cristiane Lavoratori Italiani (ACLI) have organized an Interview with professor Alessandro Barbero, who is an Italian historian, academic and writer. What comes next is a further elaboration on the topic, which starts from professor Barbero’s argumentations and expands them.
Professor Barbero does not mince words: to equate Nazi-fascism and Communism is a gross inaccuracy. This mistake, he goes on, stems from oversimplifying both political ideology and history. Not coincidentally, Nazi-fascism and Communism sit on the antipodes of the political spectrum.
On the one side, we have Nazi-fascist exaltation of inequality between human races, and the consequential need for extermination, imperialist expansion, rigid hierarchies, and total command over the state’s political, economic and social functioning. On the opposite side, we find Communist egalitarian ideals of peace, equal distribution and social ownership of resources and means of production, and abolition of capitalist exploitation of the working class, the poor and the oppressed. Nonetheless, ideology alone does not make a political regime, and the way Communism developed in the Soviet Union has been used time and time again to improperly compare Nazi-fascism to Communism.
That is not to say that there are no similitudes among 1930s Italy, Germany, and Russia. Undeniably, both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany saw the rise of an authoritarian one-party dictatorship and resulted in absolute control over the economy, suppression of freedom, and genocide. However, while these commonalities speak in favor of describing Stalinism and Nazism as totalitarian,(1) they are not grounds enough for assimilating one whole ideology and political project to the other, as it would be reducing Communism and its multifarious expressions to one of its particular instances.
The assimilation of Communism to Stalinism
Particularism and extremization are the hallmark of such a faulty reasoning, especially considering that the classification of Stalin’s Soviet Union under Communism is still up for debate. Several scholars regard it as a degeneration of Communism into State Capitalism, an economic system functioning according to the logic of capital accumulation and where production and business activity are undertaken by state-controlled entities and institutions. Even considering that housing and agriculture were organized following the state socialist principles of collectivization and redistribution without profit intents, most of the other sectors, especially the heavy industry (e.g., steel factories), were nationalized and meant to increase the capital inflow to the country.
Interestingly, how intensively the Soviet Union under Stalin invested into and reorganized the economy around heavy industries is now recognized as a possible starting mechanism of the infamous 1932-33 Holodomor famine.(2) Thus we ought to acknowledge the role that capitalist factors, alongside communist and authoritarian ones of course, played in the darkest implications of Stalin’s regime. This could help us reach a better understanding of the horrors with which many justify anti-communism. One showing that basing anti-communism on them can work only if we allow a reading of their causes that intentionally leaves out the elements that also characterize Western countries. What a coincidence!
Besides, socialists now oppose, and then opposed, Stalin’s oppressive and sanguinary rule, which for example materialized in the institution of the Gulags and in the control over the press, as it betrays communist core values: freedom, equality, and self-determination of all people.(3) Nowadays we can expect most communists to be anti-Stalinist, as they have recognized the terror caused by its madness (literally, Stalin is suspected to have had a psychopathic personality, prone to manipulative behavior and paranoia (4)) and the damage it did to the communist ideals.
This is in striking contrast with Nazi-fascism, as we can hardly find any neo-nazi or neo-fascist who is not nostalgic of the two dictators, even though such nostalgia often lacks grasping how extensively our lives would be controlled and endangered under their governance. Neo-nazi and neo-fascist groups actually glorify every aspect of those regimes, and with exceptional fervor the most violent and destructive ones, such as the racial laws and the colonization of Ethiopia. At the very least people overlook the genocidal aspect of Nazi-fascism, and by contrast underline the “good” that was done in their name. This is a blatant double standard in comparison to the hyper-critical attitude reserved to Communism. And two coincidences make a bias.
So that, to equate Nazi-fascism to Communism on the bases of Stalinism is not only strategically reductive, but ultimately also disseminated with selective reading and biased interpretation of history and ideology. To use a psychological framework, this kind of anti-communism seems to be a projection of the sanguinary intentions of Nazi-fascism onto Communism, whose final aim was actually the opposite of sanguinary.
Anti-specter of Communism
Many lament that Soviet Unions’ State Capitalism, authoritarianism, and terror were somehow an inevitable product of Lenin’s Russia and Communism, and use this argument to propose that Communism can only result in dictatorship and bloodshed. This is far-fetched, to say it bluntly, since it is constructed on one extreme case and on deriving causality from simple temporal succession. It further reveals a eurocentric reading of Communism, which disregards the experiences of several Latin America, Asian, and African communist states, as well as the contribution of communist activists and politicians to the fight against workers’ oppression, poverty, and inequality. Hence we shall now turn to the global experience of Communism.
In its long history, Communism assumed different forms in different countries, and led to very different results in each of them, some more successful than others. Such a multiplication of experiences and viewpoints sharing the grievances of economic exploitation brought about various sub-ideologies within Communism itself. Some see the necessity of instituting a centralized state, like in leninist Russia, some others argue that power should be transferred directly to workers’ cooperatives and decentralized organizations, like in 1930s anarcho-communist Spain. All envision a society free from the yoke of social classes, wage slavery and, ultimately, the state.
If we analyze the history of several communist countries outside of Europe, it is true that we could find other instances of slaughter and repression. Mao Zedong, for instance, shared Stalin’s view of violence as a necessary tool to achieve the communist final goal, and he too ordered the killing of dissidents while instituting disastrous agrarian policies that led to the 1959-61 famine. Fidel Castro notoriously persecuted homosexual people, and also limited freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement. These are all inexcusable, and prevent me and others from elevating these figures of Communism to absolute idols, if not making us condemning them altogether.
However, and again, there is difference between admitting that also Communism can develop into authoritarianism, and reducing all communism to its authoritarian cases; There is also a difference between communists condemning the horrors of Communism, own or derivative, and Nazi-fascists glorifying the horrors of Nazi-fascism; There is finally a difference between communists taking inspiration from the revolutionary work of 20th century communist leaders, parties and organizers to propel society towards the liberation of all oppressed communities, and Nazi-fascists taking inspiration from the genocidal projects of Hitler and Mussolini to propel society towards white supremacism.
Then we should wonder who the city council of Dalmine and the EU Parliament are trying to fight against with their anti-communist indignation for the atrocities of the past, at a time when virtually no communist is working on pursuing those atrocities. Maybe the specter of Communism, most likely just our condemnation of the atrocities of neoliberal and corporate capitalism, postcolonial imperialism, and white supremacism, together with our attempt to unionize against them.
From the specter to the spectrum of Communism
Crucially, whilst a few authoritarian leaders do not make the totality of Communism, do so instead the hundreds of working-class people who stood up against economic exploitation and to change their society, at a time when they were being persecuted and massacred by those in power. From the factory workers of 1917 Russia, through the Latinx, Mexican, Chicano migrant farm workers united by Dolores Huerta and Cezar Chavez in 1950s U.S.A., to the workers and farmers of 2020s India, communist ideals and approaches have ignited the war against capitalism since the second industrial revolution. Their victories reverberate in today’s improved working conditions and increased political power of the working class: 8-hour workday, freedom of association and strike rights, and workplace safety, just to mention a few. The war is long to be won, but it also thanks to their efforts and sacrifice that we can continue to fight.
Following the same visionary project, communist politicians and parties everywhere represented a fruitful and integral part of the democratic life of their countries. In Italy, communist women and men organized the clandestine opposition to fascism. Members of the Communist Party wrote the Italian constitution, and held political positions at national, regional, and municipal level. One of them was Nilde Iotti of the Partito Comunista Italiano and the first female president of the Chamber of Deputies from 1979 to 1999. Nilde is considered a key figure of the resistance during WWII and is remembered for her revolutionary feminist spirit and her work on divorce laws.(5)
Communist states around the world inspired change and justice with their revolutionary and impactful reforms: healthcare in Fidel Castro’s Cuba,(6) which is internationally recognized as one of the world’s best and most accessible ones; education and economic in Thomas Sankara’s Burkina Faso, which significantly increased literacy rates and school attendance while making the country less dependent on extortive foreign aids;(7) more recently, economic and cultural in Evo Morales’ Bolivia, which lifted 18% of the population out of poverty while increasing the minimum wage with 87.7%, and empowered indigenous people.(8)
Communism, in other words, has been a much richer and more complex experience than just its most atrocious and disastrous instances. On the contrary, explains professor Barbero, Nazism and Fascism are two specific political regimes, that lasted for approximately 20 years (fortunately!), in two specific countries (Italy and Germany) and that completely identify with their dictators (Hitler and Mussolini), and their lust for power and domination. Nazism is only and nothing else but Hitlerism, as well as Fascism is only and nothing else but Mussolinism.(9)
Killing the Hydra
Motions like the one proposed by Dalmine’s city council thus obviously represent an instrumental manipulation of history and ideology. Their attempt is to reduce every form of Communism, from Anarcho-communism to Marxism and Leninism, to totalitarianism, in order to demonize any communist sympathizer, and with them any attempt to criticize and dismantle the current exploitative economic and political systems.
We all know too well that the demonization of Communism played a pivotal role during the Cold War, and on its bases Western countries were able to legitimize their political power, parliamentary democracy, and their economic structure, neoliberal corporate-oriented capitalism. Noteworthy, through that legitimation stakeholders and politicians are allowed today to justify the very horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of democracy and free-market ideology: from colonialism and slavery, which represent the very foundation of contemporary democracy and capitalism, to modern slavery and the repression of racialized and gendered proletariat in mining sites in Asia and Latin America. Yet we do not see people trying to equate capitalism and democracy to Nazi-fascism on the bases of such horrors.
This way anti-communism becomes the old and new strategic tool to polarize the electorate and give a frame to reactionary and exclusionary reforms that would not otherwise stand on their own, while managing to conceal the very Nazi-fascist aspects that they incorporate. So while politicians from both left-wing and right-wing parties warn us that without wage labor, law and order, and stable democracies we would plummet into communist famine and extermination, my transgender sisters and brothers in Orban’s Hungary get stripped off their right to exist, the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. continues to profit over the incarceration of innocent black women and men, and the invisible yet tangible borders of the Mediterranean Sea keep drowning refugees.
For these reasons events like the present interview to professor Barbero represent an impactful and necessary form of resistance. No matter how redundant this discussion may seem, as long as instrumentalized anti-communism exists, it is our duty to bring clarity on the subject and help people depicting a more factual and honest image of Communism and its history, and to revive the hope that political projects whose final aim is our liberation are still possible.
It is time to kill the nazi-fasci-communist Hydra. For as only by looking at our past of struggle, visionary ideologies, and failures we will be able to build stronger solidary and more effective resistance to the tangible horrors of today’s society.
- Arendt, H. (1951). “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, Hannah Arendt.
- Glover, J. (2001). “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century”. Yale University Press.
- “Soviet Russia, it must now be obvious, is an absolute despotism politically and the crassest form of state capitalism economically” (Emma Goldman, 1935).
- RetiefI F. & WesselsII, A. (2008). “Was Stalin mad?” South African Medical Journal, 98(7).
- Bufalini, J. (2020). “Nilde Iotti, il coraggio di una comunista che credeva nella forza delle donne.” Striscia Rossa.
- De Pol, V. (2005). “‘No One Left Abandoned’: Cuba’s National Health System since the 1959 Revolution.” International Journal of Health Services 35(1):189-207.
- Harsch, E. (2013). “The legacies of Thomas Sankara: a revolutionary experience in retrospect.” Review of African Political Economy, 40(137), 358-374.
- O’Hagan, E. M. (2014). “Evo Morales has proved that socialism doesn’t damage economies.” The Guardian.
- Nazi-fascism-inspired movements and regimes sparkled elsewhere and in other times of history, such as 1930s Franco’s Spain and Szálasi’s Hungary, to the American neo-Nazi group storming Capitol Hill in 2021. However, none of these instances incorporated all of the projectual aspects of Nazi-fascism and are considered by historians as admiring and taking inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini, more than representing Nazi-fascism themselves.