Ideologies at War

Ralph Zuljan

The imperialist world order died on the battlefields of the Great War. From its ashes arose three forms of socio-political organization that would, in the span of twenty years, initiate an even bloodier war aimed at determining which of the competing ideologies would govern the post-imperial world. Under the banners of democracy, communism and fascism, armies once again marched into battle. Although the Second World War is sometimes seen as a continuation of the First World War, and is implicitly considered a sequel, the issue at the core of World War II was the form and substance of this new world order and that makes it a radically different war from World War I which began with fairly broad, if tacit, agreement about the existing order.

At the start of the twentieth century most of the world was divided up into a small number of great empires competing for power on the world stage. Each had some level of popular representation, but in essence these empires were ruled by a privileged elite of land owners with aristocratic origins, or pretensions. An emerging capitalist class was gaining in influence everywhere. For all of the slight differences between those empires, there was a remarkable level of conformity in form and substance.

Meanwhile ever greater numbers of the masses toiled in the factories that were slowly displacing peasant farms as the backbone of civilization and employment. The new industrial economy thrived on peaceful production, trade and consumption. Warfare seemed to promise nothing but mass destruction. It was at this time that ideas about the end of war first arose.

Within twenty years, three of those great empires disappeared into the dustbin of history and two more were shaken by the experience of world war. A radically new communist model of social organization emerged in place of the shattered Russian Empire and proclaimed a world revolution. Democrats promised to impose their worldview as well. Britain and the United States were the surviving representatives of the new deal democracies which, while having experienced no governmental overthrow as such, had been transformed during the twenties and thirties. In Italy and later Germany, fascist governments arose and they demonstrated dynamism that also promised a new world order. Of all the great powers, only Japan retained even a semblance of adherence to traditional imperialism.

At issue among the competing ideological positions were questions such as governmental form, in which the communists and fascists adopted a one-party dictatorship in opposition to the multi-party, rotating, rule found in the democratic countries. Fascists and democrats agreed on private ownership for the means of production while communists favored state or public ownership. Democrats and communists accepted the principle of individual freedom (though they derived rather different conclusions from it) while fascists did not.

Long-term accommodation among the competing ideologies proved impossible. Fascism and communism initially aligned in opposition to democracy before the outbreak of World War II however, a realignment during the war produced a temporary alliance between communism and democracy for the purpose of defeating fascism. Such pragmatic short-term decisions later led some observers to conclude ideology was irrelevant but in the long-run it was all that mattered. The alliance between communists and democrats broke down before the fighting stopped. It seemed to last only long enough to ensure that fascism was defeated and discredited.

Fascism suffered defeat because of the evident inability to effectively mobilize the populations and industry under its control. Production statistics, that were later used as some sort of proof of the inevitability of the "allied" victory, certainly demonstrated the miserably poor performance of the fascist states in comparison to the overwhelming efficiency achieved by democratic and communist countries. By the time the war ended there was relative clarity about the need to have either dictatorial state ownership or multi-party private ownership of the means of production in order to achieve efficiency.

There was no certainty, however, about which of the two remaining ideologies would ultimately prove itself superior to the other. There could be little doubt about the fact that communist planned industrialization in the prewar Soviet Union - the first communist state, for all of its inherent brutality, managed to produce the conditions necessary for the USSR to survive the fascist challenge (albeit with democratic help). It is doubtful that the democratic model could have done the same. A "cold war" broke out between democrats and communists in the wake of the devastation produced by the world war. Neither side sought a final reckoning; a neo-imperialist competition was rationalized instead.

For forty-five years, the more-or-less peaceful ideological competition continued. Communist growth rates easily outpaced those of the democracies in the first postwar decade and this was reason enough to believe that communism would ultimately "bury" democracy. Early communist successes in the military, political and economic arenas proved ephemeral. By the beginning of the last Cold War decade the balance had already swung inexorably in favor of the democracies. Communist military and economic policies proved untenable and calls for the abandonment of the commitment to communism began to arise from within those states which adhered to it. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down -- one of the last vestiges of the allied victory in the Second World War -- and the following year, the American president declared victory at the "end of the Cold War" and announced a "new world order". No one could realistically argue against the fact that democracy had "won" the war against both fascism and communism, although some bitter adherents to the other ideologies tried to do so.

Thus, at the end of the twentieth century, once again, the world powers are united in a relatively uniform worldview. This time, the end of history, as well as war, has been declared. A new and poorly defined technocratic elite is emerging that shows all the signs of supplanting the established capitalist elite in wealth and power -- much as the capitalists had done with aristocrats around the end of the nineteenth century.

Originally published in "World War II" at on July 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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