The Perils of Dictatorship

Dorothy Thompson

Oakland Tribune/March 29, 1936

It is amusing to remember that only a few years ago many of our own businessmen were hailing Mussolini as the savior of business from communism. One even heard that someone like Mussolini was what this country needed. His last moves have greatly clarified the issues. It is now clear that the totalitarian state can move in only one of two directions, unless it moves in both of them together: Toward complete collectivism and war. Apparently Mussolini chooses both.

Fascism, it appears, is not an antidote for communism nor communism an antidote for fascism. In the long run they approach each other.

Social Discipline

Communism starts as an economic movement, with the aim of nationalizing the means of production in the interests of the working masses. To make its program work it has to regiment the working masses in the interests of the bureaucratic state which assumes dictatorial power in their behalf. This is accomplished by creating a myth and a social discipline, and actually the power of the movement resides in the vigor of the myth, imposed by an immense propaganda apparatus and accepted, especially by the youth, with religious intensity.

The basis of the myth is a Messianic belief in the coming of a perfect world order. Since Russia is to be the agent of this order, the myth is eventually associated with an intense, if unusual, form of nationalism, and a high degree of economic nationalism is inevitable because a completely socialistic state cannot otherwise be organized in a single country.

Different Thesis

Fascism starts from an entirely different thesis, and has an entirely different goal. It is avowedly anti-economic. It repudiates the whole idea of man as an economic creature. It elevates instead what it calls the heroic virtues, and regards the nation as the supreme Good. It is accepted at first as the savior of individualism from economic collectivism.

But whereas Communism, beginning with state ownership and control of the economic life, eventually regiments every individual down to his last thought, Fascism, which begins by regimenting the individual to a nationalist ideal, ends by swallowing the economic system.

Industrialists who are for the most part notoriously incapable of seeing beyond their next dividend and seem to prefer suicide to social reform, have, in Italy and Germany, clutched at the social disciplines of Fascism, thinking that it will keep them in power. But Fascism is only interested in keeping its own bureaucracy in power.

Controlled Industry

Actually, Mussolini’s step in nationalizing the key industries represents no sensational change. Industry was already under complete control. The ownership remained theoretically in private hands, but the owners had little or nothing to say about what they should do with their property. Very early in his career Mussolini had to take over the banks, and the industries, as in most poor countries, were in the hands of the banks. They were broke, and the state salvaged them on its own terms. Many new industries were created by the state for purely national and militarist purposes.

Mussolini’s war policy carries him further and further in this direction. Speaking before the Fascist assembly several days ago, he said that Italy would have to undertake the hydrogenation of lignites, the manufacture of alcohol from plants and the distillation of asphalt rock to take the place of oil imports; she would have to substitute more electrification projects for coal and work even her deepest lying mines, setting research bodies at work to find substitutes for cellulose, rubber and oleaginous seeds. All this is uneconomic in the extreme. Mussolini blames sanctions for it, but the Ethiopian venture itself has no economic justification.

Irrational Basis

What he wants in Ethiopia he could have bought for far less than it costs him to fight for it. The same amount of money invested in real reclamation projects in Italy would have yielded vastly greater material results. Mussolini himself has stopped the emigration of the surplus population, although there are parts of the world better than Africa where they could go. But Fascism is not rational. It is irrational—patriotism gone haywire.

The enterprises which Mussolini is taking over are bankrupt. Not because of Italy’s essential poverty. They are bankrupt because a rampant nationalism makes no attempt to cut its garment to its cloth. Marching troops, a huge party mechanism, a vast bureaucracy, cost money. Someone has to pay it. First the common people pay, compensated by illusions of future grandeur. But they will not pay forever if someone else is making a profit. So eventually profits go, too. The final logic of the totalitarian state is collectivism on the basis of economic levelling, That is the only way the apparatus will work.

Land Tenancy 

And it is just that it should be so. When private property ceases to make free men, its only spiritual justification goes. Democracy and the widespread distribution of private property go together. James Madison knew that; Thomas Jefferson knew it. Not all of our conservatives today realize it, nor all our liberals. They think the abundant life is more ice boxes and automobiles for everyone.

Those who care for democracy should be more concerned with ending land tenancy in this country, reviving local government and merchandising, protecting the small industrialist, who is often more efficient than the large one, and welcoming a vigorous, responsible trade unionism.

Economic nationalism is incompatible with democracy. A rigidly self-contained economy means eventually the complete limitation and control of production, distribution and prices. That means dictatorship, and dictatorship always goes the whole hog. If we love freedom we ought to work to push open the economic frontiers of the world under a more reasonable policy of give and take than has been pursued in the past. These frontiers are not yet completely closed, The British Empire, France, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland and the North and South American continents have not yet accepted the idea of economic self-sufficiency or hysterical nationalism under a totally powerful state. This, after all, is still two-thirds of the civilized world.

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