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ORIGINS OF POLITICAL EXTREMISM

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By Manus I. Midlarsky

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The Montréal Review, July 2011

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Origins of Political Extremism: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century and Beyond by Manus I. Midlarsky (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

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"Rarely does the timing of a book's publication coincide so well with the relevance of its subject matter in the real world. In this age of extremes, Midlarsky's masterful volume carefully guides us through what motivates and drives people to political violence; highlighting - as only an experienced scholar can - the key unifying elements in otherwise disparate-seeming cases across time and space."

- Monica Duffy Toft, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

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Political extremism is one of the most pernicious, destructive, and nihilistic forms of human expression. During the twentieth century, in excess of 100 million people had their lives taken from them as the result of extremist violence. This is a wide-ranging work that employs the theory of the ephemeral gain, together with mortality salience, to form a basic explanation for the origins of political extremism and constitutes a theoretical framework that also explains later mass violence.

An ephemeral gain occurs under the following conditions: After an earlier period of subordination, an identifiable social group, typically a nation-state, experiences a major societal gain (e.g., territory), which is then followed by a critical loss. Mortality salience refers to the experience of mortality, mostly found in interstate war or other war-like settings. I apply this framework to multiple forms of political extremism, including the rise of Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian fascism, Nazism, radical Islamism, and Soviet, Chinese, and Cambodian communism. Other applications include a rampaging military (Japan, Pakistan, Indonesia) and extreme nationalism in Serbia, Croatia, the Ottoman Empire, and Rwanda. Polish anti-Semitism after World War II and the rise of separatist violence in Sri Lanka are also examined.

The case of Germany is emblematic. After a long period of subordination to unified Western powers like France, a united Germany emerged victorious from the Franco-Prussian War. This newly formed great power was to be the continental hegemon for much of the period leading up to World War I. But upon Germany's defeat in that war and loss of territory, some of which had been under German (or Austrian) domination for centuries, the Nazi Party began to emerge. And after intimations of loss became palpable during the early stages of World War II on the Eastern front where difficulties in overcoming Soviet opposition were encountered, and the near certainty that the US would soon enter the war, the Holocaust was launched as the most blatant expression of Nazi extremism.

Stalinist policies also arose from a similar, albeit more complex, dynamic. From its position as one of the European great powers and hegemony over the Ottoman Empire, exemplified by its victory over Ottoman forces in 1878, Russia was then subject to a humiliating defeat by Japan in 1905. This was the first defeat of a European power by one from Asia in modern memory. Stalin actually found himself in close proximity geographically to this locus of Russian defeat in the Far East. But in the later Bolshevik victory over its tsarist and Western opponents, Stalin found himself among the winners in this contest. Yet, once again, he would be on the losing side in the Russo-Polish War of 1920, in which he was a co-commander of one of the two defeated Soviet armies. Stalin experienced intense humiliation amidst the criticism of his handling of this war. Certainly, this experience, among other more personal sources, led to his sanguinary policies. Interestingly, this is a case of successive reinforced ephemera that can have considerable emotional resonance.

Beyond the direct applicability of the theory itself to a wide variety of cases, the ephemeral gain in attenuated form can be used to understand the utterly remarkable polarization and current extreme positions taken by members of US political parties. The rise of China and the vulnerability of the US to external attack demonstrated by the events of 9/11 followed a euphoric period of the 1990s attendant upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. That the earlier Cold War period was rife with uncertainty did not amount to subordination, but at times, as in the first foray of human ingenuity into space (the launching of the USSR's Sputnik in 1957), appeared to verge on that condition. The US defeat in Vietnam followed by the Iran hostage imbroglio also appeared to suggest American decline.

A particularly egregious example of polarization in recent American politics is found in the hope for the death, or at least incapacitation, of a Democratic proponent of health care reform by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) prior to a critical vote. The ephemeral gain and mortality salience together predict this type of polarized politics and extreme, apparently irrational political positions. The so-called "Birther" movement that only recently appeared to be appeased by President Obama's release of his full birth certificate from Hawaii is another example. Hopefully American democracy is resilient enough to overcome these debilities that undoubtedly have some of their roots in the machinations of party politics but also stem from salient international events. Much will depend on US diplomatic skill in response to the Chinese challenge and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. That President Obama appears to be acutely aware of this necessity does suggest hope for the future.

An important lesson is the necessity for calm in the face of intense provocations that can take the form of loss, territorial or otherwise. Virtually all of the cases of political extremism analyzed in the book stem from the perceived need for an urgent response to the nation's challenges. This was certainly a basis for the rise of fascism, especially in its virulent Nazi form. In contrast to autocracies that can arise from the activities of extremist movements, democracies, with their checks and balances involving legislative and judicial limitations on executive power may be more able to avoid the urgent response. It takes time to enact legislation; herein can be found the cognitive reflection necessary for the avoidance of an urgent, often violent, response to territorial loss or other perceived provocations. For this reason among others, democracies are less prone to engage in acts of mass violence. These political structures certainly are not foolproof as demonstrated by the recent contours of American politics; nevertheless, they can yield considered responses that avoid the enormities frequently committed by extremist movements.

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Manus I. Midlarsky is the Moses and Annuta Back Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He has recently published the Origins of Political Extremism: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, March 2011). This work is an amplification and extension of The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2005). He also published the edited volume Handbook of War Studies III (University of Michigan Press, 2009)

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