25 Jul 2013

Fascism and Cancer

Posted by jofr


Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm were like Albert Einstein Jewish scientists who fled from the tyranny of Nazi Germany and emmigrated to the USA. Both knew their home country and the German culture very well. Both analyzed the character of Nazi ideology, Hannah Arendt from a philosophical point of view, Erich Fromm from a social and psychological perspective. Hannah Arendt coind the term banality of evil and examined the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. Erich Fromm analyzed the social character of totalitarian states in his book “Escape from Freedom” [1]. According to Fromm, medieval and totalitarian societies share a common aspect, the lack of individual freedom [1]:

“What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of individual freedom…But altogether a person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt…There was comparatively little competition. One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher in the social hierarchy”

In this sense, totalitarian societies can be viewed as a fallback into more primitive ones. These more primitive ones have a lesser degree of differentiation, but often a much higher aggressiveness. They tend to expand and invade surrounding territories. Like cancer. Can we view fascism or totalitarianism in the 1920 and 1930 (for example Nazism in Nazi Germany) as a form of cultural cancer? Is it more than just a nice metaphor? If there is a cultural evolution similar to biological one, with phenotype and genotype, then it makes sense to look for cultural stem cells and cultural cancer. Contemporaries in the time around  WWII  were used to speak of “cultural cancer”, many viewed fascism and nazism as “cancer” or malignant outgrowths of modern society and European civilization which threatened and consumed it. Actually it was common in the WWII area to compare totalitarianism to it, two examples are Reflections on Totalitarianism (Cairns Post, Australia, 1942) and Totalitarianism Grows Like a Cancer (Financial Post of Toronto, Canada, reprinted in Prescott Evening Courier, 1949). The first article considers totalitarianism as  distortion of the normal structure of a society or community, where one element is capable of growing to excess, thus affecting and influecing the others:

“The health and virtue of a community depend on the correctness with which it can keep its various elements in balance, each flourishing in its own sphere, but not trespassing on that of others. In a totalitarian State the political element first sets out to bring econmic life completely under its control, destroying independent economic organisations such as trade unions, cooperative societies, and producers’ associations. Then it proceeds to absorb cultural life. In Germany, for instance, newspapers, films, books, schools, universities, have all been perverted to serve political ends. All independent cultural and recreational associations have been politicalised [..] After perverting economic and cultural life to its own ends, the totalitarian State begins to interfere in various ways with marriage and family life. Then, at the final stage of its cancerous growth, the totalitarian State attacks the religious life of the community.”

It also mentiones that the communism of the cold war period can be considered as a form of political totalitarianism, too, a view has been shared by Hannah Arendt:

“In Marxism this over emphasis of the economic is carried to its extreme and fantastic limit. Marxism contends that the only really important events are economic events, and that every religious, political judicial or cultural happening is nothing but the determinate consequence of prior economic happenings. […] In practice, Marxism calls upon the community to sacrifice religion and political and cultural freedom, in order to attain some economic end. In pursuit of this policy it sets up an elaborate and tyrannical bureaucracy, and eventually becomes indistinguishable from political totalitarianism.”

There seem to be many forms of “cultural” cancer in the evolution of social organization. Examples are nationalism in France under Napoleon, Nazism in Nazi Germany, Communism in the Cold War, .. They are known as various *-isms: rascism, fascism, communism, nationalism, imperialism. The thesis of this article/post is that each *-ism can considered as a meltdown or merging of at least two different evolutionary systems. Since Durkheim we know that the normal evolution in social systems tends towards an increasing level of differentiation a stronger divison of labor , and a higher degree of complexity. The increased process of system differentiation is a natural way of dealing with the complexity of its environment.The number of subystems increases together with the level of differentiation and division of labor.

This means in earlier, more primitive forms of society the social organization was much more simple, and the number of subsystem was lower. The ruling social organization contained and spanned multiple systems, where different systems were intermingled and intertwined: ideological/religious, economic, political, military, scientific  and journalistic/media systems. The king in Ancient Egypt for example had the absolute power in all areas and every aspect, concerning ideological, religious, economic, political, military and scientific and journalistic systems. He was the king, and the king controlled the religion, the politics & the law, the economy, the military, the science, and the media.

During the time, different subsystems appeared. Politics, economy and religion separated and became different fields. Each evolutionary system has their own actors, which try to survive (often by using marketing or advertising) to be elected, selected or followed by people

  • Biological systems consists of biological organisms and animal families which try to survive, grow and prosper in nature
  • Ideological/Religious systems consists of prophets/sects that produce religions to address moral questions
  • Ideological/Political systems consists of politicians/parties which produce ideologies and strategies
  • Economic systems consist of companies and organizations, and people producing or consuming goods and services on markets (which contain economic system based on information and news – media, ..)
  • Financial systems consist of banks and venture capital firms which try to survive, grow and prosper
  • Cultural/National systems consists of national states with specific culture and language which try to survive, grow and prosper in a certain territory
  • Cultural/Art, Literature, Music Systems consists of different art styles
  • Cultural/Science systems consist of different sciences to describe Nature
  • Cultural/Media system consist of different channels to distribute news and information

But sometimes, this process is reversed, and different subsystems merge into one again. Just as new systems can appear and emerge in an evolutionary system, two different evolutionary systems can merge again in a kind of integration (or “meltdown”) of different systems. In the evolution of social organization this means a fall-back or backslide from a complex evolutionary system on multiple levels to a system with fewer levels. The extreme case appeared in nazism during the time of WWII: the enforced conformity (Gleichschaltung) on a political, cultural and social level in nazism, fascism and communism can be considered as a merger or fusion of many different social systems, or as a backslide, throwback or fall-back to earlier, more primitive forms of organization.

The problem with these fall-backs is that they are often like a cultural tumor – very aggressive, expansive and hostile. They are hostile because they face many hostile reactions from multiple directions, like economic sanctions, political boycott, .. As said earlier, the aggressiveness of some invasive, malicious tumors can be seen as an adaptation to a hostile environment, where it has to cope with reactions from many different systems. Moreover, what is beneficial and unique in individual instances of a system (the individual consciousness which arises from the connection of nature and culture, body and mind) becomes dubious on a larger level (kingdom, aristocracy) and horrendous and horrific on the largest Level of the whole system (holocaust). Paradoxically the same thing which makes us human, the unique connection between body and mind, is utterly devastating in a larger context, and ends up in the worst form of inhuman racism. There is a path from aristocracy and dynasty to racism.

  • Political + Financial = Capitalism
  • Biological + Ideological/Political = Fascism/Rascism
  • Ideological/Political + Economic(al) = Marxism/Communism
  • Ideological/Political + National/Geographical = Nationalism
  • Economical + National/Geographical = Colonialism/Imperialism
  • Scientific + Ideological/Religious = Dogmatism
  • Biological + Ideological + Economical + National/Geographical = Nazism/Totalitarianism

Maybe also capitalism fits into this picture, as a system where the capital, i.e. the banks, rule, which means there is a merger of financial and political systems. In the strong forms of totalitarianism, communism of the cold war and nazism of Nazi Germany, all religious, political and cultural freedom as well as freedom of the press are sacrificed to serve the state planned economy (communism) or the crude ideology (nazism).

From this point of view the various *-isms failed because the interference of one system with another lead to failure.  People often ask what wreng wrong with communism or marxism. One reason is certainly that the planned economy controlled by central planning did not work. There was no private property, and the people had no incentive to work. The political system, the economic and the financial system were not independent enough. They were largely merged. This merging seems to be at the heart of other *-isms as well.



[1] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, Farrar and Rinehart, 1941
[2] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (in German “Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft”), Schocken Books, 1951
[3] Hans-Ulrich Thamer, Verführung und Gewalt – Deutschland 1933-1945, Siedler Verlag, 1994


(The Photos are public domain photos from Wikipedia. They show the Reichsparteitag of Nazi Germany, i.e. the Nuremberg Rally


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