It’s never been more important to understand History’s lessons. To avoid humanity slipping into madness again, we need to go back to simple history lessons we were taught in high school. The parallels to now are too obvious and frightening to ignore.
The first introduction to politics I remember looked something like the diagram above. Our goofy GCSE History teacher was explaining 1920s and 1930s European politics. He drew something like this diagram on the board. I’ve never forgotten it.
This was his crash course in how western civilisation and the World came to be gripped by a murderous insanity. In full schoolboy arrogance, I remember thinking how crude, stupid and backward people’s behaviour in the 20s/30s seemed. I was thankful to live now, when no one would be that crude, stupid and backward. That was 20 years ago, I’m not so thankful now. It seems we all need to learn this lesson again, and I definitely need to be kinder in my judgements on humanity.
First thing to note is where political ideas sit on the diagram. Communism and Fascism are much closer to each other than they are to other ideas. The other three ideas are bunched together at the bottom. Here’s why.
Fascism and Communism are the different sides of the same idea. A self selected elite take bold steps to achieve an idealist vision of the future they believe is in the best interests of the majority of the population. Economics, politics, and morals are bent to serve an end goal that they believe will achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. If this end goal comes a the expense of a particular minority race, class, cultural or social group, then so be it. The end justifies the means. This leads to totalitarianism.
There is no point arguing the rights or wrongs of the intellectual basis of either political idea. Treat them, instead, as you would a scientific experiment. Communism and Fascism have been real world tested repeatedly, and the results are always the same. Totalitarian systems always fail.
People die en mass. Economies fail. Wars happen. These experiments are catastrophic failures that have left a stain on humanity’s record. Looking back from a 1990s GCSE History class this fact seemed obvious beyond questioning. We felt complete confidence these experiments would never be repeated. Fascism and communism were failures, why would anyone try them again?
Yet all over the world people are suddenly trying again. Far right and far left parties and influences are suddenly everywhere. It’s sometimes hard to fathom why, but the answer lies in the bottom of the diagram. Social democrats, liberals and conservatives, are much more alike than they like to admit. Together they make up democracy. The weighting is different in different democracies, but all three are almost always present. The political parties that represent these three ideas are all pragmatic and practical in their aims and approaches. They fight over the details of today. They work to improve what is the situation right now, not what they dream it might be.
The fights within democracy are real and important, but they’re not often grand and rarely seem noble up close. Technological advances and the ubiquitous exposure that’s ensued, has enabled us to see up closer than ever before. Fighting over the scope, scale and cost of something like public provision of healthcare, public sanitation, military, education or infrastructure is messy, slow moving, emotive and often results in compromise. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. Compromise and cooperation is how humans thrive as a species, but compromise rarely provide certainties. And this is suddenly a real problem.
Recent economic shocks, abundant information and accelerating technological advances have increasingly made the certainties of the past a fading memory for huge swathes of humanity. People feel this new uncertainty as real lived experiences day in, day out. People struggling with this new state of existence look at the politics of the bottom of the diagram above, at democracy, and just see more mess, more compromise and more uncertainty. The pragmatic solution that’s kept the world peaceful and stable for decades, suddenly feels frightening, because ordinary peoples’ lives feel frightening. As in the 20s/30s, democracy feels frightening.
Enter the extremists. The Fascists and the communists. Enter the men, women and movements that promise you solutions. Perfect solutions. No pragmatism. No compromise. No uncertainty. Just follow our instructions and voila! Because as everyone knows, life is like a recipe. A dash of this, a tweak of that, splash of the other, and everything will be perfect. Except it won’t. We know it won’t. Those who came before us did the experiments. The experiments failed. Fascism and Communism failed. Totalitarianism failed.
It’s a hard hard truth to sell right now, but the imperfect system we’ve got today is the very best option there is. It’s the solid gold standard of political options. Democracy in all it’s messy glory, is truly beautiful.
We’ve got to remember how to love it again. How to defend it. We’ve got to remember the fight between the ideas at the bottom of the diagram above may be real and important, but they are nowhere near as important as the fight between the bottom and top of the diagram. For democracy against totalitarianism. Fascism and communism don’t work in practice. We know that fact and we need to keep reminding ourselves of it. If we don’t, we are doomed to make History’s mistakes again.
And none of us want to be part of a “lesson from History” generation.