The dark games played by political extremists
White nationalists clash with counter-demonstrators before the start of a speech by Richard Spencer. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty   

Last week, I wrote about the oddity of Teen Vogue’s advocacy of communism. Publishing a hagiographical interview with somebody who claimed to be “literally a communist” and tweeting repeatedly about the necessary destruction of capitalism were stances, I suggested, which seemed at odds with the potential longevity of a luxury lifestyle magazine.

Since then, various members of the Left and far-Left have urged on me a consideration of which they think I am blind. They allege that people like me are taking the new far-Left far too literally, and that when certain of them say that they are “literally” communists, there is, in fact, something else going on. They are not actually planning to institute full-scale communism in the foreseeable future. Rather, they say they are doing one of a number of things, from merely striking a stance, to aiming to wound, to merely flirting with darkness.

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Well, I’ve heard this interesting line of argument before and it is worth dwelling on. For it can be heard online from figures on – or supportive of – the alt-right.

As it happens, I do think that the term alt-right has some serious definitional problems. It is unclear, for example, how many people it consists of in the real world and what differentiates those who are real and part of it – and not just the online trolls – from simple, ugly, old-school white supremacism.

From early on in the evolution of the term, one explanation of the alt-right was to say, when its online legions were joking about aspects of the Holocaust, that it was just playing around with the dark stuff.  Of course, the defence went, these people didn’t actually want to institute a second Holocaust and didn’t necessarily think that the last one was a good thing. Here was simply a new generation who had grown up long after these terrible events and who were using their own edgy humour and ways to wound and were doubtless making some mistakes along the way. At least this was the claim.

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I don’t know that many people are writing about the complicated area of politics that this all opens up, but perhaps we should be. Because I don’t think that all such statements can be put down to pure historical ignorance. Take the Twitter account from Goldsmiths University (the LBGTQ Twitter account) which last month received widespread condemnation for a thread on Gulags.

This account (which subsequently closed down) claimed that the Gulags of communist Russia were getting an unnecessarily bad rap. Far from being the hells on earth that every serious historian and person who lived through them knows them to have been, the Goldsmiths LGBTQ account claimed that they were actually positive endeavours – “rehabilitatory”, “educational” and an enriching way to cure “bigots”.

It is an interesting interpretation to be sure. But, again, can it really be dismissed away as pure ignorance?

One might legitimately suspect that the person saying that the Gulag was good, or claiming the Holocaust wasn’t all that bad, is doing so because of an ideological desire for the claim to be true. That is: these people are motivated to believe the wildest claims about history because they have some instinct that propels them into hoping that history didn’t happen the way it did and are hoping thereby to exculpate their own political inclinations. They’re flirting with the darkness.

Others, of course, are willing to jump right on into it.

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Take the case of Richard Spencer in America, probably the most prominent representative in the flesh of the alt-right. He deals in a specific type of something that is more-than a mere flirtation with darkness. In the most famous footage of the man (recorded in November 2016), he leads a crowd of followers in shouts of “Hail Trump“, with some fascist salutes thrown in. It suggests to most of us that he is the real thing: somebody who emulates the words and actions of the Nazis because he admires them and wants to be like them.

But his use of language is interesting, and how it insinuates itself into others’ dialogue. For instance, Spencer refers to the ‘lügenpresse’. There are many reasons why people today might refer to the dishonesty of sections of the press and media. They might even use a term like ‘fake news’. Someone using the term ‘lying press’ may or may not be making a specific reference. But somebody in an English-speaking country using the exact German term as used by the Nazis, is giving the strongest possible hint about their own ideological affiliations. Spencer and others on the far-Right in America play around with the term because they hope that their ideological affiliates will pick it up and stay around for more of the same poison.

There are those who will say that the situation is different on the far-Right and the far-Left. But it isn’t clear to me that the rising alt-left isn’t playing such different and dark games. Next June, one of the alt-left, Aaron Bastani, will publish a book called Fully Automated Luxury Communism – a work which proclaims to set out a blueprint for a future in which everybody will be fed and everybody will be free.

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Why don't we remember the victims of communism?

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Anybody who knows anything about the history of communism will heave at Bastani just as those who know anything about facism will heave at Spencer.  In the 20th century, communism was responsible for the starvation – as well as deliberate slaughter – of millions of people. Coming up with a solution to any problems of our time and calling it ‘Fully automated luxury communism’ is as disgraceful as proclaiming some form of ‘Fully automated luxury fascism’.

Is Bastani actually seeking a return to the horrors of the 20th century? Or is Spencer? We have to make our own value judgements. But it does seem that somewhere out there, just south of the Spencer-types, are an increasing number of people willing to play around with the darkest materials, throwing them around and enjoying the gawps of horror that their antics undoubtedly provoke. Ordinarily one would ask them to stop it. But perhaps watching out for how people deal with the darkest materials is one of the best ways to work out who those people really are.