From an operational standpoint, there’s not a lot of difference between totalitarianism of the left and totalitarianism of the right. The look, sound and function much the same. It’s the underlying ideology that’s different – and generally, how they come to power is different.
In general, a fascist government will rise from within – it will come up organically, working through established (and generally legal) methods to gain influence and positions of power, then act (again, through generally legal means) to change the system to reinforce its own power.
The typical socialist/communist government takes power with a revolution – it may start with a movement, but in general, the mechanism of control comes through a violent (and perhaps even popular) uprising that wipes out the old regime and replaces it completely. It then establishes a new system, one that is designed at reinforcing its own power and – ironically – preventing any new rebellion.
Let’s look at each of these systems/methods in turn, starting with fascism.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aesop gives us a parable that helps define the term fascism – his story The Bundle of Sticks. Gather up a bundle of sticks and tie them together. Now try to break them. Doesn’t work, does it? Untie the bundle and try breaking the sticks one at a time. Super easy to do, right? That idea carried through to Roman times, where that developed into something called a fasces, rods tied around an axe handle – a symbol of legal power in the Empire that represented punishment (being beaten with the rods or executed with the axe). Fasces –> fascismo –> fascism.
Like many forms of government, there are many types of fascism. We tend to associate fascism with Benito Mussolini/Italy & Adolf Hitler/Germany in the 1920s-40s, but the truth is nearly every western nation – including the United States – had fascist movements in that time period and many of them were politically powerful. Following the collapse of most fascist movements at the end of World War Two, Portugal & Spain managed to maintain their fascist governments into the 1970s under Antonio Salazar & Francisco Franco, respectively. (You could, however, argue that radical elements of the Catholic church co-opted Franco’s fascism, marginalizing it, but that would be a topic for a separate post.)
Fascism is easy to peg as radically right on the political spectrum. Fascism is socially very conservative and should be considered anti-egalitarian, as in “under fascism there is no such thing as equality”. It derives a lot of its inspiration from ultra-conservative ideologies such as nationalism and romanticism and as such, can be considered as a movement that wants to purge modernism and egalitarianism from all aspects of society. It is the ultimate backward-looking socio-political ideology and idealizes the “good old days” when we (whoever “we” are) all spoke the same language, practiced the same religion, celebrated the same heroes and obeyed the same leaders.
Because of its idealization of the “good old days” when we all followed the same rules, a fascist movement will not take the form of a traditional armed revolution. Instead, fascists will generally work from within the system to reach positions of power and influence, THEN change the system to better suit its ideology. Most fascist leaders – such as the aforementioned Mussolini and Hitler – achieve positions of power through completely legitimate (if unduly influenced) processes such as appointment (Hitler) or election (Mussolini). Once in power, though, the fascist leader will drop the pretense of democracy and start altering laws and processes to ensure that fascism is the only legal political system, thereby cementing its power and influence and marginalizing all other political ideas and practices. Look up the Acerbo Law (Italy) and the Enabling Act (Germany) to see how that works.
The point here is that fascism works from within to get power, then reorganizes the way power is held to ensure nobody else can have any power. That’s not a revolution. It starts with people saying “Remember how things used to be? Everything was so much better then & we should go back to that simpler way of life” and ends with “Thanks for electing/appointing me President/Prime Minister/Chancellor, now do what I say or I’ll have you executed.”
Socialism, then, and its more sinister sister Communism, are ideologies of the left. To gain power, a true Socialist movement will foment a popular uprising, which we commonly refer to as a revolution. Many of these ideologies are based in Marxism. Marxism is a very complicated socio-political theory, but it can be distilled down to some basic points.
1. There are two types of people – Capitalists, who own everything, and Workers, who own nothing.
2. The economy functions due to the transaction between Capitalists and Workers – the Capitalist pays wages to the Worker in exchange for his time, which is spent laboring to produce something.
3. Products themselves have no inherent value; that value is attached through the labor of the Workers.
4. Profits made by Capitalists are an exploitation of the labor of the Workers.
5. Capitalists and Workers exist in a constant state of struggle because Capitalists always want higher profits while Workers always want higher wages. (This is called the Materialistic Dialectic and is where the term Class Struggle originates.)
6. The Class Struggle has driven past events and all economic systems can be described in similar terms.
7. Governments exist solely to enforce class differences.
8. To eliminate the Class Struggle and therefore the Capitalist/Worker conflict, the Workers must rise up in rebellion and destroy the Capitalists.
9. After the revolution, a temporary state/government must take over; this new government will enforce the will of the Workers over the will of the Capitalists. (Remember, all governments exist to enforce class differences!)
10. Once the Capitalists are destroyed, a classless society can exist – a society without social stratification, government or even nations.
It’s obviously more complicated than that, but those are the basics. As you can imagine, creating any kind of classless society would require great upheaval, as nearly the entire stretch of civilization has been constructed of class-based societies. This would necessitate a violent revolution, because the Capitalists will not willingly give up power.
It’s the stage between points 9 and 10 where most Communist governments exist, and they never move past it. The former Soviet Union was exactly this type of government – theoretically using its power to suppress the Capitalists by creating a series of nationalized industries that feed their profits to the state rather than to individual Capitalists. Yet they never managed to move on to step 10 and create a truly classless society – to its end, the USSR was a 2-class society – those with power and those without power. Those with power grew rich and fat; those without power went hungry and drank vodka.
Many would say this is the true failing of China’s “Communist” government, because it embraces the power of profits and may never abandon the very system they claimed to have rebelled against. Chinese Communism is not true Socialism, but it is a system that exists as an totalitarian regime. In the 21st century, China is every bit as capitalistic as the United States.
Anyway, to gain their status, Communists must eliminate the old regimes completely. It is for this reason that we classify Socialist/Communist governments as left or Liberal (in the abstract sense), because Liberalism is predicated on massive change – exactly the opposite of classical Conservatism, or rightist ideology, which requires the maintenance of the status quo.
Totalitarian governments are easily identified by some common markers – a (sometimes highly) charismatic dictator as leader, claims that political power stems from the people when we can all clearly see that it doesn’t, a highly organized official ideology, low levels of official corruption, just one political party, a total monopoly on mass communication, strict control of the military, rule enforced by terror (secret police) and a near-complete nationalization of industry in order to meticulously plan out the economy.
When you look at it in that light, the fascist government of Adolf Hitler isn’t terribly different from the communist government of Josef Stalin. One big difference was that Hitler didn’t nationalize industry – he did, however, force German industry to do his bidding.
What brought this up is the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who runs Syria. His government isn’t totalitarian, it’s authoritarian. What’s the difference? Simple. Authoritarian governments are usually led by “regular” guys that aren’t particularly charismatic, but ironically rely on the “cult of personality” concept to maintain power. The dictator (and it will be a dictator in charge) gains power through his own effort (sometimes a coup or other seizure of power) and while some authoritarian governments allow elections – feigning democracy – the dictators tend to win those elections by unrealistic margins (99.9% of the vote for Saddam Hussein, for example). Authoritarian regimes are cut through with corruption, much of which is tolerated by the dictator because the people benefitting from that corruption get rich and are therefore interested in keeping the dictator in power. Authoritarian governments also will have an iron grip on the military and a high level of control over the economy, though they don’t typically nationalize everything, because then nobody that supports them gets rich. Last but not least, authoritarian rule isn’t based on any cohesive ideology other than “I want to be rich and powerful! I am the dictator! OBEY AND WORSHIP ME!!!”
As a side point, totalitarianism is generally accepted, while authoritarianism is nearly universally reviled. Nobody says the USSR’s government wasn’t legitimate, but everybody says Saddam Hussein had to go. The communists are allowed to rule Venezuela without any outside intervention, but Robert Mugabe (leader of Zimbabwe) has had sanctions leveled against him by the US & EU for decades.
Totalitarian regimes, when they do disappear, are usually eliminated by war. Authoritarian regimes are usually ended by the death of the dictator.