This is a perennial conversation that does seem to annoy me. When arguing with people who are further to the right of me, they often invoked deaths caused by Stalin and Pol Pot and other such dictators. They seem to think that those to the extreme left who end up as totalitarian dictators are fully representative of the left as a whole. To me, the left/right paradigm is far too simplistic to be meaningful in the sort of conversations. What is more useful would be to look at the political compass quadrant of taking into account libertarian/authoritarian ideals as well.
The sort of thing they say is:
And the USSR, Mao and Pol Pot killed 100 million of their own people
Six million Jews exterminated in the most right-wing and famous example. And if you take places like Saudi Arabia as being right wing, then human rights are shot in those places. What is happening here is that people are inclined to count the hits of the left, and ignore those of the right. Germany killed 26 million communists. They were killed by the fascistic right. I am here just trying to balance books when everyone thinks that the left has killed so many people and they always ignore what the right does. They don’t even recognize what the right even is. I would argue that Saudi Arabia is a government of the conservative right and is at the moment causing one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises in decades.
So someone on the modern left who is a social Democrat is obliged to accept that communism exclusively represents the left? It’s like saying Hitler = the conservative political right. In both cases, totalitarianism is far more causally prevalent.
As some people on Quora opined:
But whether or not Hitler is included, it looks like Mao and Stalin take the average left-wing death toll through the stratosphere regardless of who else is identified as a leftist or a dictator. Their death tolls are in the tens of millions. However, if you include in the death toll those deaths from wars started by dictators, two decidedly right-wing nationalist dictators, Hitler and Tojo, far surpass Mao and Stalin. Hitler and Tojo’s World War II caused 60 million deaths between them. Ideally I’d try to find the median death toll for right-wing and left-wing dictators, but that would involve compiling a list of dictators and sorting them by ideology, neither of which is a trivial task. (Is Leopold II, dictator of the Congo “Free” State, left-wing or right-wing? Was Ferdinand Marcos a dictator? What about the monarchs throughout history who held absolute power?)
Whatever. It’s often semantics to try and parse this question. But I do know this: just because you sit on the same side of the political spectrum as someone evil, it doesn’t mean your views are wrong. You shouldn’t abandon social democratic ideals simply because Pol Pot was a socialist any more than you should abandon love of country because Hitler and Tojo took nationalism to deadly extremes. It’s absolutely unreasonable to judge your own views based on those few in history who twisted them beyond moral comprehension.
And anyway, when you get to death tolls in the millions, does it matter which side of the spectrum the dictator sits on? Past a million they’re all pretty much equally horrible.
The death toll from right wing dictators would have to include not just Hitler, but also:
Chiang Kai Shek’s fascist state
Suharto of Indonesia
Porfirio Diaz of Mexico
Trujillo of the Dominican Republic
Synghman Rhee of South Korea
Efraim Rios Montt of Guatemala.
Every one of these has death tolls in the hundreds of thousands, the first five over a million each. The last three presided over small nations, making their death tolls proportionately quite high.
The highest death tolls in history actually come from monarchies, imperial and colonial conquests, colonization and the slave trade. Genghis Khan, the Manchu rule in China, and British, French, Spanish, Belgian, and Dutch empires each far outdo both left and right wing dictators. For example, King Leopold of Belgium killed 10 million, about half the population of the Congo, and French rule in Africa killed proportionately about the same.
With totalitarianism appearing to be the more important factor, what does this say about the present rise of populism across the world, populism of the right?
As The Washington Post states, in a fascinating article (“How Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s America”):
The rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, accentuated by the election of Donald Trump, has led to growing fears about the possibility of new forms of authoritarianism. In search of insight, many commentators have turned to a book published some 65 years ago — Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Arendt was a German Jewish intellectual who fled Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933, lived in Paris as a stateless refugee and Zionist activist until 1941 and then fled to and settled in the United States.
“Origins,” first published in 1951, was based on research and writing done during the 1940s. The book’s primary purpose is to understand totalitarianism, a novel form of mobilizational and genocidal dictatorship epitomized by Stalinism in Soviet Russia and Hitlerism in Nazi Germany, and it culminates in a vivid account of the system of concentration and death camps that Arendt believed defined totalitarian rule. The book’s very first words signal the mood:
Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining superpowers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm, that settles after all hopes have died . . . Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena — homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth . . . Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest — forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries.
It really is an awful lot we can learn from the book with regard to warning signs from present societies around the world, including the USA and Brazil, for example.
A subtheme of “Origins” is that by the 1930s, there was throughout Europe a generalized crisis of legitimacy. Large numbers of people felt dispossessed, disenfranchised, disconnected from dominant social institutions. The political party system, and parliamentary government more generally, were regarded as corrupt and oligarchic. Such an environment was fertile ground for a “mob mentality,” in which outsiders — Jews, Roma, Slavs, gays, “cosmopolitan intellectuals” — could be scapegoated and a savior could be craved: “The mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented.”
And a society suffused with resentment, according to Arendt, is ripe for manipulation by the propaganda of sensationalist demagogues: “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part . . . Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction . . . [and] can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity.” Cynicism. Contempt for truth. Appeal to the craving of the masses for simple stories of malevolent conspiracy. Stephen K. Bannon of Breitbart News may not have read “Origins,” but it is clear he has taken a page from the movements Arendt analyzes….
She recognized that the emergence of full-blown totalitarianism was not the only danger facing liberal democracies. Indeed, she noted in “Origins” that “it may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form — though not necessarily the cruelest — only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.” But she brilliantly diagnosed the forms of alienation and dispossession that diminished human dignity, threatened freedom and fueled the rise of authoritarianism.
The current rise of right-wing populism throughout Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States presents unique challenges of its own. These demand new analyses and new prescriptions. Arendt begins “Origins” with an epigram from her teacher Karl Jaspers that seems apt: “Give in neither to the past nor the future. What matters is to be entirely present.”
In monarchistic regimes, there was often the belief in divine right whereby kings and queens believed that they were divinely chosen to rule. This then leads them to believe in some kind of moral superiority since the ultimate arbiter of morality, God, is on their side. This then enables or facilitates colonial expansion and imperialistic ideals.
The above illustrates the theory that the extreme left and right are far closer than many people realise, and that we really have more of a horseshoe scenario. Though somewhat criticised, the horseshoe approach does have some merit, though it is bettered by a quadrant. This is useful in showing a quadrant approach:
To support the idea that monarchies are classically to the right (indeed, as I mentioned here, this is the etymological basis of the left/right terminology), let me quote from “The Left-Right Political Spectrum Explained” by Thomas DeMichele:
The terms can be confirmed by considering the basics of political philosophy regarding basic political ideology and government types, especially in terms of the classical left/liberal/democracy and classical right/conservative/aristocracy, where Democracy (rule by “the many”) and liberalism are the ideologies of liberty and equality and are well represented by figures like Rousseau and Locke (left) and Monarchy/Aristocracy (rule by “the one” or “the few” respectively) and Conservatism are the ideologies of authority, order, tradition, and social hierarchy and are well represented by a figure like Hobbes (right).
Or, the terms can also be confirmed by considering the origin of the terms left and right at the start of the French Revolution where the political “left” and “right” were first used.
During the French Revolution of 1789 members of the National Assembly who supported the revolution and wanted “liberty, equality, and brotherhood” stood to the President’s left and supporters of the king who favored the Ancien Régime stood to the President’s right. Reporters subsequently referred to these groups as “the left” and “the right.”
In all cases, the classical terms and the events of the French Revolution (and other liberal revolutions against the conservative monarchs) speak to the classical left and right, they don’t speak directly to the social forms.
In other words, a careful examination of classical liberalism, left-wing, and democracy will show they all share basic ideology despite being unique terms, and likewise a close examination of classical conservatism, right-wing, and monarchy/aristocracy will show they all share basic ideology despite being unique terms. That part is easy to confirm philosophically and historically.
As the Quora commenter above noted, if we are adding up left vs right deaths, then you would need to include all deaths under monarchies. Also as noted, monarchies are authoritarian, and I find this a better causal variable.
One final point to make is one of intention. Modern technology in the 20th century has enabled to such totalitarian regimes to inflict untold amounts of suffering and death on different populations. This didn’t happen so much of the past for a couple of reasons first. First of all, populations were much smaller and regimes were simply unable to inflict that much death because that many people didn’t live in the world or in urban areas. Secondly, the technology didn’t exist to eradicate people in the way it has existed in the 20th century. You could have had the most murderous intentions thousand years ago, but you wouldn’t have had the population numbers or the technological capabilities to inflict the kind of damage you would have intended. There would have been regimes who wanted to wipe entire populations of the face of the earth but they were unable to do so because they didn’t have the technological capabilities.
Authoritarianism is a much better explanation and explains violence on both sides. So when people on the right accuse the left of causing the most deaths by a massive margin, and in so doing imply or explicitly claim that the conclusion of the left is far more violent and morally inferior, they are playing fast and loose with ideas and numbers. Hopefully, this article goes some way to showing that.