Extreme Ideologies

Dr. Jim L. Riley

Regis University

Denver, CO


Whereas the fundamental characteristic of moderate political ideologies is found in the avoidance of demands for drastic change, extreme ideologies seek not only changes of a basic nature but also within a very short span of time. Changes are sought in all aspects of society and politics. The nature of the changes, the manner of their effectuation, and their ultimate goals are what distinguish the various types of extremist views. As will be seen in greater detail the content of any specific extremist ideology may appear at first glance to bear little if any resemblance to other superficially contrary ideologies, but in elementary ways they are cut from the same mould.

Statism and Totalitarianism

As the name itself implies, totalitarianism is a political orientation that advocates the complete or total politicization of society. Everything within society is given political significance. Dress styles, manners of speaking, social gatherings, religious activities, education, economics -- all of these along with every other dimension of human activity is considered as proper for control by political institutions. Total control of society is the goal.

Subjecting individual humans to complete control by institutions within society is not new. Religions throughout history have frequently espoused doctrines justifying virtually any controls over individual behavior. Such limitations on human freedom were frequently if not always grounded in some notion of divine intervention and guidance in human affairs that could not be resisted or opposed without going against God's will. Of course God's will was to be determined by established church institutions through whom God revealed "his" grand scheme.

Much of the history of the so-called Western World that has transpired in the last several hundred years has revolved around struggles over the question of individual freedom versus controls over people exercised by religious institutions. With the advent of mass participation in political affairs flowing from the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th Century, the question over individual relations to politics and government began to rise to the forefront of societal concerns. The Protestant Reformation had weakened the traditional powers of the Catholic Church and resulted in a liberation of individuals from church controls, but new powers of government grounded in wide spread popular political participation placed humans in danger of a new subjugation.

The growing importance of the State had been receiving considerable philosophical attention especially during the period following the Protestant Reformation. Important political implications flowed from Martin Luther's challenge to the Catholic Church. Political independence of the European states, driven by fledgling nationalism contributed significantly to realignments of political arrangements, destabilizing of ancient regimes, and economic reform that encouraged the growth of a new and powerful middle class.

These changes were both recognized and often supported by political philosophers seeking to explain the world about them. Niccolo' Machiavelli (1469-1527) is often considered one of the first "modern" writers about politics in the sense that his concerns were more descriptive and practical than theoretical and moral. As a statesman and political practitioner he viewed with dismay the political divisions within Italy and found the culprit for this weakness in the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote: The Church, then, not having been powerful enough to be able to master all Italy, nor having permitted any other power to do so has been the cause why Italy has never been able to unite under one head, but had remained under a number of princes and lords, which occasioned her so many dissensions and so much weakness that we became a prey not only to the powerful barbarians, but of whoever chose to assail her. (Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livious, I, 12; trans by C.E. Detmold. The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, 4 vols., Boston and New York, 1891.)

As a means of correcting this undesirable weakness Machiavelli advised government leaders on the techniques of ruling effectively. Being unconcerned with moral considerations, he focused instead on what was for him the ultimate goal of politics: preserving and increasing the power of the state. Seeing weakness abound he desired to instruct those in power on how best to avoid it.

His most famous work The Prince (1513) (written primarily to secure his favor with the Medici Family in Florence) contains practical suggestions on how best it is to govern with a view toward keeping and expanding power. Rulers are outside the norms of moral behavior that govern others. The final evaluation of a ruler is determined wholly by whether or not he is able to maintain and enlarge the power of his state. Truly then for Machiavelli, the end justifies the means.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived in England during equally tumultuous and violent times. The Civil War of the mid 17th Century had culminated in the execution of Charles I in 1649 and was followed by the Puritan dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Hobbes had been the mathematics tutor for the exiled prince Charles II who was restored to the throne in 1660. Having witnessed and been a part of the upheavals of this period Hobbes was concerned that Kings, representing the power of the State, be given absolute obedience. This was not because of any "divine right" but because the absence of order necessarily resulted in a society characterized by a continuous "war of each against all." Mankind was essentially selfish, aggressive and acquisitive. Without law and government humans will degenerate into an abysmal state of nature devoid of any values characterized by civilization.

In his most famous work The Leviathan (c. 1651) he wrote: The bonds of words are too weak to bridle men's ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power. (The Leviathan, ch. 14)  The State is a leviathan elevating mankind to a higher state of being than would otherwise be the case. It serves to provide essential services, particularly order and predictability in society. People will obey the law and contribute to this order and social predictability only if it is in their interest to do so. It is the responsibility of the State, according to Hobbes, to provide this incentive through rewards and punishments. This State must be completely sovereign and all powerful permitting no resistance. Despite his defense of an absolute monarch, Hobbes was not well received by the monarchists of his day because of his refusal to ground absolute rule in a divine right theory. Rather, it was for purely practical or utilitarian reasons that he advocated absolutism.

Belief in the supreme importance of the State received further philosophical support from Georg Wilhelm Freidreich Hegel (1770-1831). Aside from Hegel's monumental contributions to the realm of philosophy generally, his views on the nature of the State and mankind's relation to it helped prepare the later justifications for totalitarianism. Hegel was a fervent German nationalist who viewed with abhorrence the prevailing provincialism throughout the German "nation." Only a strong central government could provide the unifying force necessary to produce this powerful Germany. Hegel was no believer in a social contract to which people willingly joined in order to obtain desired ends. Rather for him the State was the Divine Will manifested on Earth. The State was an end in and of itself. He wrote: The State is the divine will, in the sense that it is mind present on earth unfolding itself to be the actual shape and organization of a world. (Philosophy of Right, Section 270)

Although the State was to be absolute in the political realm and provided at the very least one of the ways in which individuals found meaning in life, he was no totalitarian. There were aspects of human existence in which the State had no proper role. In other words, no entity on Earth was superior in importance to the State but it was not exclusive in its claim on human dedication.

Events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries unfolded in a manner that would transform these abstract notions into political realities. Nationalism became to be something equivalent to a religion in that it provided individuals with a set of beliefs about the homeland that were unshakable and irrefutable. All that was good and virtuous could be found in the customs, traditions, and beliefs associated with one's country. What might be called "creeping totalitarianism" afflicted peoples throughout the so-called modern world, that is to say the world embracing the new technologies of industrialization and urbanization. Insular ethnocentrism had long been present in human society but the new strain of belief in the rightousness of one's own kind contained a special virulence that could justify any conduct by one's own country while being completely blind to contrary views. Leaders of nations entering into the era of mass production and the harnessing of the forces of nature found themselves able to muster vast powers previously unknown. Only dimly if at all was the potential for unprecedented destruction recognized.

What was clear to the European chieftains came from the new prowess of modern armies and navies. Demands for raw materials to power the emerging industrial machinery could be obtained through imperial expansion into less developed and militarily weaker portions of the globe. Such extension of national power required both massive and mobile armed forces and a will to use them. Such a willingness could be made more palatable if undergirded by theoretical justifications. Concepts such as "manifest destiny" and racial or cultural superiority became very popular and widely accepted during the latter decades of the 19th Century. Nations were embarking on a path that would ultimately lead to warfare of a new variety: total war involving weapons of mass destruction.

Mobilizing a society for total war necessarily demanded a complete involvement by the state into all aspects of life. The Great War of 1914-18 (now called World War I) resulted from numerous causes still debated among scholars. Was it German militarism, the breakup in the balance of power on the European continent, the mental and psychological shortcomings of the Kaiser, a series of unintended miscalculations by those inept leaders making foreign policy throughout Europe, the inevitable result of technological advancement unmatched by changes in political institutions, or some combination of all of these and others not named?

What is known for certain is that as the direct result of the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in the Balkans in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia in 1914, European nations began invoking often secret treaties to declare war on each other. After four years later and tens of millions had been killed, the armed conflict ended in the surrender of Imperial Germany despite its armed forces being intact. Enormous war debts were imposed on the defeated nations as well as being deprived of vast tracts of its pre-war territory. Moreover, humiliating rest restrictions were placed on Germany regarding the size and deployment of its armed forces. The Treaty of Versailles was the instrument of punishment of Germany. It also redesigned the map of Europe laying the foundation for nationalist movements resurfacing in the last decade of the 20th Century.

Other nations found their situation forever changed as well. Imperial Russia had been overthrown and replaced by a Communist regime under the leadership of Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov otherwise known as Lenin (1870-1924). Italy although on the "winning" side of the war enjoyed few if any substantial benefits from the "victory" but instead was faced with economic disasters, political ineffectiveness, and social unrest. England, while not suffering the physical damage inflicted on the other belligerents had a generation of young men almost wiped out and faced serious economic difficulties.

France experienced similar carnage on its younger generation and faced enormous physical damage as well as national psychological trauma. For all of the participants with the notable exception of the United States there had been experienced a conflict that weakened seriously elements of the political, economic and social framework that had sustained pre-war institutions. The stage was set for the full development of 20th Century Totalitarianism.


The term fascism is derived from an ancient Roman symbol of authority for magistrates: the fasces. This was a bundle of rods bound tightly together with a sharp blade projecting from the top. The weapon symbolized the strength that flows from unity. Each individual rod standing alone is weak and easily broken, but when bound together are able to constitute a formidable weapon. One of the central purposes of fascism is to bind every member of society together into a mass of humanity dedicated to common goals and unified by uniform beliefs and values. Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) was the first of the 20th century political leaders to implement fascism.

Relying upon the popular frustrations with inefficient government, the failures of the Great War to gain Italian colonies, massive economic problems, the new technologies of the modern nation-state, mass propaganda techniques, and a general state of moral depression, Mussolini fanned the flames of hyper-nationalism. Ultimately in 1922 he overthrew the ineffective Italian constitutional monarchy with the famous March on Rome. Mussolini in 1925 then secured the passage of legislation establishing an "intensified" dictatorship that placed hims at the head of the State as El Duce or leader. This was a fusion of the Fascist Party and the State.

The glorification of the State lies at the heart of fascism and its virtues were extolled by Mussolini. He wrote: The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is the conception of the State, of its essence, of its functions, its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative. . . . /it is/ the immanent conscience of the nation. (Benito Mussolini, "The Doctrine of Fascism," in Mussolini Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions, (NY.: Howard Fertig, 1968), pp. 27-28))It is important to note that Nation and State are distinguished by the fact that the nation refers to a people with a common identity derived from historical experiences, while the State is the legal embodiment through which this nation acts. In a real sense, the term Nation is a psychological one while the term State is legal in essence. Mussolini, however, viewed the State in primarily mythical terms as the physical manifestation of the spirit of the Nation.

Contrary to often expressed interpretations, Mussolini believed that the State creates the nation, not vice versa. By attributing to the State mythical attributes the bounds of rationality and logic may be easily ignored as irrelevant or even hostile to the greater purposes of the State. Fascism accepts as a given that humans are fundamentally irrational and rely on emotions to determine their behavior. Intelligence may thus be seen as a tool used by humans to fulfill needs and desires. The implications of this belief for the organization of society are enormous. Rational discourse and scientific methods are of secondary significance to society and government. Love of one's homeland, reverence for its people and traditions, hatred of outsiders and hostility toward their aspirations are all part of the Fascist mindset. All that is evil is to be found in the enemies of the State and all that is virtuous and good exists within the homeland. In times of trouble, discontent and fear the discovery of a "devil figure" enables fascist leaders to play upon the fears of a frustrated populace in an effort to convince them to support this "new order" that will bring forth a return to glory and usher in a long lasting (and long denied) rightful place for themselves and their posterity.

Such focusing of hate is a powerful device in rallying dedicated supporters. The "devil" may be communists, Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, "decadent democrats" or any other convenient target. Because communism had in the Twentieth Century become an important force in world affairs and constituted a belief system theoretically at odds with fascist precepts, it became a primary target of hate for those embracing fascist views. Marxist communism is a self-proclaimed rationalist movement whose purpose it is to eliminate the nation-state system of social organization and replace it with a world-wide Godless society of perfect harmony. No matter that while purusing this earthly perfection society must knuckle under to the "dictatorship of the proletarian" and therby enduring policies quite similar to those adopted by Fascist regimes.

Despite their common use of terror and intimidation to gain and keep political power, Communist and Fascist regimes found in each other a perfect enemy. The State also played a critical role in developing life's meaning for people. Only through the State could individuals have true identity and meaning in life. Using an "organic theory of the State" he asserted that just as cells in the human body were of meaning only to the extent that they contributed to the health of the body, so too were individuals important and meaningful only with reference to their contributions to the whole body politic. In a famous phrase he said: "Everything for the State; nothing against the State; nothing outside the State." This belief in the absolute supremacy of the State was not to be derived solely or even primarily from logic or any rational schema, but was rather a matter of faith: We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, it is a passion. It is not necessary that it shall be a reality. It is a reality by the fact that it is a goad, a hope, a faith, that it is courage. Our myth is the nation, our myth is the greatness of the nation. (quoted in Herman Finer, Mussolini's Italy, 1935 p. 218)

The State was then to be supreme actor in the development of national goals. Cast aside were any thoughts of natural rights of individuals, popular sovereignty, or majority rule. Likewise there was repudiation of Marxian theories of the class struggle. The State was both supreme and sovereign. All individuals, groups, and interests were subordinate to the needs of the State. Fascists view the world in terms of a never ending struggle for power. Peace and tranquility are viewed with disdain and contmempt. It may be correctly stated that the Fascist ideology does not assert that might makes right, but that might is right! Militarism is the vehicle by which a people assert their rightful place in the sun. Development of a mighty military machine to carry out national "destiny" becomes invariably a core component of governmental policy.

But just how was this State to be run? At the apex of power strode El Duce. This "leadership principle" asserts that because the institutions of representative democracy are inherently divisive and ineffective, one individual who embodies the will of the Nation should rule the State. Fascists were required to take an oath "to obey without question the commands of the Duce." Unquestioning obedience was expected and demanded. The State was in its essence the will of the Leader who is the "living sum of untold souls striving for the same goal." His is the collective will of all the members of the nation. This feature of the Leader was inherent in his being and not a learned skill. A mythical connection between the people and the leader existed and remained beyond the reach of rational analysis.

In Italy the centralization of power and movement toward totalitarianism occurred through a series of steps resulting in a continuous shrinking of local governmental autonomy, elimination of judicial independence from party control, politicization of the military apparatus, governmental control of youth organizations, and the adoption of "syndicalism" in the economic sector. Strikes and lockouts were outlawed. Disputes between "labor" and "management" were settled by arbitration under government control. Through a hierarchial arrangement the Ministry of Corporations and the National Council of Corporations maintained the supremacy of Fascist control over the economy.

Using different governmental mechanicasms the State weilded dictatorial powers of the means of mass communication throughout Italy. Fascism (as distinguished from Nazism) may thus be seen to contain the following attributes:
1. intense pursuit of societal unity
2. extreme nationalism
3. glorification of the State
4. the leadership principle
5. irrationalism and anticommunism
6. militarism


Although there were many philosophers which laid the intellectual foundations of nazism, a few stand out as major contributors. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) rejected Hegel's idealism and asserted that ultimately life was incomprehensible due to man's irrational nature. Through "will" mankind thrust himself into the making of history that had no grand scheme or plan. Life was a meaningless struggle to survive and dominate.

Fredrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) took this concept of "will" and applied it to "ubermann," a kind of "superman" who would ulimately dominate all humanity. This emergence of a superior human would develop only through ruthless struggles. Through a "will to power" the rightful heirs would assume their role as rulers of weaker inferior peoples.

Joining this theory of "might is right" was a doctrine of racial supremacy. Although enthocentrism may be found to various degrees in all cultures, German myth has long emphasized their special virtues. The Aryan race was believed by many to have laid the foundations of all meaningful civilization. These blond, blue-eyed peoples were believed to have dominated inferior races throughout Europe and central Asia but because of miscegenation became "infected" with racial impurities. Their most racially pure descendants were to be found in Germany although other nations housed them as well. Scandinavia, England, and northwestern Europe generally were also thought to contain the bulk of these Aryans.

These were to be Neitzsche's "supermen." Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927) put these pieces together and concluded that Germans must at all costs protect their racial purity and expand German civilization over inferior races. The Jews were seen by Chamberlain as the essence of evil and later called by Hitler the "culture destroying" race.

These beliefs and ideas became a political force in Germany with the advent of the Nazi Party. This party was symbolized by a very unique object. Just as the Italian fascists created and utilized a visual symbol for their movement, the Nazis in Germany under the leadership of Adolph Hitler devised the swastika to distinguish their movement from all others. Whereas the fascist fasces was symbolic of Roman unity, the swastika was the brain child of Hitler and was essentially a modification of the ancient hooked cross: the hakenkreuz. Placing this emblem, embolden in black, within a white disc on a red background, Hitler produced a powerful symbol of the Nazi movement. The significance of this visual representation was noted by Hitler: In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalist idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man. (Mein Kamph, p. 18.)As a device to instill a sense of special purpose among the faithful and to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies, the swastika was remarkably successful.

Because the personage of Hitler was so inextricably linked to Nazism, some in-depth presentation of his life is necessary. Like Mussolini Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) was born to undistinguished parents in ordinary circumstances. The son of a minor Austrian customs official the young Hitler was doted upon by his mother and subject to domineering treatment from his elderly father. When he was thirteen his father died suddenly and the Hitler family was near destitution. Hitler's mother was left with a small savings and a tiny pension to raise him and his younger sister. Although he occasionally demonstrated extraordinary talents his attitude and demeanor as a child and adolescent indicated unusual personality and character traits.

He was mildly talented as an artist but believed himself gifted. His mind was sharp but undisciplined and inclined to create a dream world in which to exist. In school he was not well liked as he behaved in a manner that was abusive, argumentative and self-assured. His academic interests were art and politics. By sixteen he had become an ardent German nationalist immersing himself in books on German history and mythology. Enjoying little of the trivial pursuits of young men his own age, he twice sought and was denied entry into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Having failed at this task and being ineligible for entry into architectural schools, Hitler became from 1909 to 1913 an embittered derelict and sometime painter of post-cards in Vienna. Living the life of an down-and-out eccentric who did not drink, smoke or eat meat he counted this period the most miserable in his life.

Miserable though it may have been, this period was galvanizing for the young Austrian from Linz. Surrounded by events all pointing to the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire with its polyglot population of many differing nationalities, Hitler became bitterly opposed to claims of Slavic groups and other minorities resisting Germanic dominance. He wrote:

"My inner revulsion toward the Hapsburg State steadily grew . . . I was repelled by the conglomeration of races which the capital showed me, repelled by this whole mixture                           of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs and Croats, and everywhere the eternal mushroom of human -- Jews and more Jews. . . . The longer I lived in this city the more my hatred grew for the foreign mixture of peoples which had begun to corrode this old site of German culture." (Mein Kampf, 123-124.)

While developing has racist and hate-filled views, he became involved with Pan-German groups both as a supporter and as an analyst. Noting their successes and failures Hiter was learning lessons that would be applied in years to come. In August of 1914 he enlisted in the Bavarian (not the Austrian) armed forced to fight for the Fatherland. During the war he became a decorated soldier and served as a corporal thoughout the war until temporarily blinded by a British gas attack. The news of the German surrender came while he was in a military hospital. With the German army intact capitulation occurred. To Hitler and millions of other Germans this could only be explained by treachery and treason: the "stab in the back" explanation for Germany's defeat was born.

This presented political demagogues with a ready-made platform from which to launch their campaigns for popular support. Hitler was now ready to enter the world of politics on a full-time basis. Moving to Munich he discovered a small obscure political party known as the German Worker's Party and became its seventh member. Within a period of a few years, due in large measure to Hitler's leadership and legendary oratorical skills, the newly named National Socialist German Worker's Party (NAZI) became a political force to be reckoned with in Bavaria. By 1923, with Mussolini's successful "March on Rome" as his model, the Nazis attempted a putsch in Bavaria. In a somewhat comical (albeit bloody) episode, Nazi storm-troopers were quickly routed by police and the principals in the attempted governmental overthrow were arrested.

Hitler was charged with treason and brought to trial. Given wide latitude by a sympathetic judge to conduct his own defense Hitler assumed full responsibility but no culpability. Treason, he claimed, could not be committed against the traitors of 1918 who had turned Germany over to its enemies. Although he was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, he served less than nine months and was released just before Christmas, 1924.

Hitler was now a political figure with a national reputation and had the experience necessary to expand the movement. While he was in prison Hitler narrated to his aid Rudolph Hess what was to become the political dogma of Nazism: Mein Kampf. This rambling and disjointed narrative did in fact contain much of the plans that Hitler had in mind to accomplish. Germanic dominance of the world could and would be achieved, wrote Hitler. Beginning with the destruction of France, Germany's mortal enemy, an expansionist Germany would look eastward for Lebensraum or living space. Current inhabitants would be forcibly ejected, enslaved or eliminated. Under the control of an all powerful Fuhrer the new Germany would lead the Aryan people to their rightful place of dominance.

His was a claim more of racial supremacy than of national dominance. Jews were singled out as implacable enemies to the Aryan race. During the 1920's Germany's Weimar Republic was able to govern despite continuous opposition from various extremist groups including the Nazis. With the advent of the Great Depression of the 1930's simmering discontent with democratic uncertainties and rising fears provided grist for the demagogic Hitler. Whereas the Nazi party had only 12% of the seats in the Reichstag (the German legislature) in 1928, by 1930 it had one-fourth of the seats and was the second largest party there.

By 1932 the Nazi party was the most numerous in the Reichstag although it lacked a clear majority. In 1932 Hitler ran against Hindenburg for the Presidency and lost by almost twenty percentage points in the first election and by seventeen percent in the run-off. After much intrigue and political maneuvering by various German leaders, President Hindenburg was persuaded to name Adolph Hitler Chancellor (prime minister) on January 30, 1933.

Although the Nazi party had to share power in the cabinet, Hitler was able to consolidate his position by using the resources of the government to aid the Nazi party in new elections that were to be held in the Spring. Through roughshod tactics and unscrupulous intimidation the Reichstag on March 23 passed the so-called Enabling Act giving to the Cabinet much of the power that heretofore had belonged to the legislature. On July 14 the Nazi Party was declared to be the sole political party permitted under law. A one-party state had been created. Total power was achieved on August 2, 1934 when President Hindenburg died and Hitler proclaimed himself Fuhrer (leader) and Reich Chancellor.

From the time Hitler assumed the position of absolute dictator of Germany until his death in April of 1945, the Nazi party under his direction initiated and instituted the policies he had so brazenly set forth in 1923. Germany was rearmed and militarism re-established. Jews, Gypsies and other groups deemed to be "inferior" to the Aryan race were persecuted, imprisoned, and ultimately exterminated. Germany and Austria were unified. German soil lost in the war of 1914 was reclaimed. France and the low land countries were defeated. Russia was invaded.

Ultimately Germany along with Italy and Japan surrendered unconditionally in 1945. Hitler committed suicide and the Nazi regime along with much of Germany lay in ruins. Such a decisive defeat might appear to be the end of fascism and nazism but the underlying ideas and values persist. These discredited doctrines are eschewed by virtually every regime that has existed since World War II (with a few possible exceptions). Yet, some governments that claim to be socialist, communist, Islamic or even democratic may be seen, upon close examination, to have adopted basic Nazi features. These may be summarized as:

1. extreme racism
2. irrationalism and anticommunism
3. leadership principle and totalitarianism
4. glorification of violence and struggle
5. extreme Social Darwinism (survival of the fittist)
6. utter ruthlessness
7. mythology