The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were hotbeds of radical political thought. At the beginning of the 1800s, societies that were largely only beginning to emerge from feudalism underwent profound changes, often as the result of war and irresistible social tensions. From these came conflicting movements. Nationalism – a very new force – emphasised the role of a country and its people as a binding force (“the nation”). This often presupposed that one’s nationality was superior to others; it is little surprise, then, that imperialism – the expansion of a country to take holdings around the globe, at the expense of the local population – often grew from nationalist sentiment, as countries such as Britain, France, and, later, Germany attempted to aggrandise themselves.
A rather less combative force, liberalism, advocated the rights of humankind, and the fact that there were, indeed, inalienable human rights. Liberals generally associated with democrats, in order to reform existing political systems from absolute monarchical rule, to a more representative democratic process. The beginnings of modern parliamentary government can be found here.
On the far left ends, one can find socialism and, in its more extreme form, Marxism. Both limit the role of the state, and emphasise the universal nature of brotherhood. Karl Marx, in particular, emphasised the importance of industrial workers and the working class, and suggested that, ultimately, human society would advance to a socialist utopia, wherein there would be no need for government or state apparatus. Marx’s oft-quoted principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” foretells a system whereby humanity works together for a common societal good. To Marx, nations were a distraction, and the real, fundamental elements of society were socioeconomic class – of which the urban proletariat, or workers, were the most vital.
With the advent of the twentieth century and the profound brutality of the First World War, it was all but inevitable that these ideologies would become corrupted. Marxism found root in Russia, where Vladimir Ill’ych Lenin launched a revolution in October 1917 in the name of the Russian workers and the workers’ councils, or soviets. What resulted – Soviet communism – would survive in Russia for three quarters of a century, though by the time it reached the 1930s it arguably bore very little resemblance to that which Marx (or, perhaps, Lenin) had ever envisaged.
In Italy, the disappointments of broken promises and suffering at the end of the war brought to power a ragtag movement of semi-socialists who nonetheless also adhered to the concept of nationalist imperialism, and dreamed of a new Roman Empire. This movement, led by a former socialist newspaper editor named Benito Mussolini, was called Fascism, and it would inspire an Austrian war veteran and antisemite by the name of Adolf Hitler, who would seek to replicate Mussolini’s achievements. The rise of Hitler’s political party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, or Nazis), would introduce the world to unspeakable horror, and plunge Europe into its second general war in just a quarter century.
Key to all of these were the nuances of their ideologies. The Nazis did not come to power because the Germans were evil, and Joseph Stalin’s rise to the leadership of the Soviet Union, and his subsequent use of terror, was not directly in keeping with the tenets of Marxism espoused by his predecessor, Lenin. Thus, we must remember that there is no historical inevitability here. These movements grew for reasons. In the case of the Nazis and the Fascists, in particular, there was a genuine popular aspect to their political movements, though with the benefit of hindsight we often find it difficult to imagine how this could be. In this series of documents, we examine the rise and nature of these ideologies.
In this series: