Because Hitler is considered a fascist, and because the Holocaust has been indelibly seared in the cultural consciousness of Western Civilization, the term “fascism” is roughly equivalent to a secular version of “satanism.” It’s the worst of the worst. It’s the epitome of evil.
Unfortunately, this means that if you’re interested in a serious discussion of historical fascism you’re out of luck. Most people can only view it as either a stand-in for “ultimate evil,” or a joke.
Among the few people who do take a serious interest in historical fascism the definition itself is hotly contested. Depending on who you ask, the French Revolution was fascist (or not) the Bolshevik Revolution was fascist (or not), and the Nazis in Germany were not fascist (or they were). There are two central aspects that are common to all of these definitions, and they are the two I want to consider:
- Utopian Progressivism
In case you haven’t read it yet, I’ll just add that a lot of the quotes in the following sections were gleaned from Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, and that it is well worth reading.
The Italian fascists invented the word “totalitarian” around the same time they invented fascism, and for them it was a positive word. A leading Italian philosopher of fascism, Giovani Gentile, used totalitario to refer to a government which included the “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.” Mussolini summarized it as, simply:
Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.
If you want to trace the origins of totalitarianism, however, you need to travel across the Atlantic to the United States. William James was an American philosopher who in 1906 wrote an influential essay entitled The Moral Equivalent of War. James–a pragmatist–argued that military organization was the most efficient method of coordinating and deploying a nation’s resources to achieve social ends. Obama’s call for national service echo the words from James’ essay:
If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Make the youth do a bunch of work and “get the childishness knocked out of them.” Mussolini sure thought so. He admired and often invoked James, and used his philosophy for fascist programs like the Battle for Grain.
James didn’t just inspire Mussolini and the fascists, however. It was the basis of the Civilian Conservation Corps — a New Deal project that had young men living in barracks, wearing uniforms, and partially under the supervision of the War Department while engaged on building public infrastructure. The same concept lives on in today’s Peace Corps and AmeriCorps programs. The idea of organizing society in some effort that has moral equivalency to war is the obvious principle behind the “War on Poverty” and to a lesser extent (since it actually involves shooting and so is less symbolic) the “War on Drugs.”
Although many fear that Obama has some kind of paramilitary organization in mind, I believe this is what he was thinking of when he made his infamous remarks about a civilian defense force:
The history of Utopian experiments has failed to live up to glorious expectations. The results of efforts to bring Eden–secular or sectarian–back to Earth have ranged from farcical (such as the Oneida Community or Fruitlands) to horrific (Jonestown and the Manson Family). Between that and books like Animal Farm, 1984, and especially Brave New World, the term “Utopian” has been completely discredited.
But the ideology lives on.
All totalitarian movements have, at one point or another, had to make the case that whatever they had to offer society was worth the exchange for individual liberty. Sometimes the rhetoric takes the narrative of sacrifice for the greater good. Sometimes a great crisis–real or imagined–is the impetus for the trade-off. But in every case there is a kind of philosophical calculus at work: for a government to take more power they must offer something. And the more power they take, the more they must offer.
This is why the governments that have ended up taking the most power have almost always started out by offering the most in exchange. The French Revolution promised to remake a nation according to the ideals of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Marx wanted to end the exploitation and alienation of workers and usher in a world without class distinctions. That basic message–stand up for the little guy and level the playing field–has been the impetus behind every bloodthirsty repressive red revolution since: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, and Che. If you ask for ultimate authority, you have to promise the ultimate salvation in exchange.
Thus the means–totalitarian control–are justified by the end: Utopia.
Love Notes to Fascism (Then)
The trick to understanding the rise of fascist governments in the past and in the future is to understand the appeal of progressive idealism in contrast to the sneaking encroachment of totalitarianism. No one loves oppression and violence for their own sake. The liberal love affair with fascism has always been a love affair with the progressive ideals of the movement and the heroes who promised to make those ideals a reality.
And the first international hero of the 20th century progressive movement was none other than Mussolini himself. Right up until he invaded Ethiopia in 1935, you could hardly find a more well-liked fascist.
For starters, the American news media loved him almost as much as they love Obama now. Isaac F. Marcossen of The New York Times wrote in 1923 that “Mussolini is a Latin [Teddy] Roosevelt who first acts and then inquires if it is legal. He has been of great service to Italy at home.” Other journalist fans included Ida Tarbell (famous for helping to break up Standard Oil), Lincoln Steffens who said “God formed Mussolini out of the rib of Italy,” Samuel McClure who wrote that Mussolini’s fascism was “a great step forward and the first new ideal in government since the founding of the American Republic,” foreign correspondent for the Times Anne O’Hare McCormick, and Lowell Thomas who provided radiant commentary on the film Mussolini Speaks.
The coverage wasn’t just positive, it was pervasive. From 1925 to 1928 there were 100 articles written on Mussolini compared to only 15 on Stalin. The New York Times just couldn’t figure out if Mussolini was the reincarnation of Garibaldi or Caesar.
And when the journalists finally did run out of glowing things to say about Mussolini, they just handed the pen over to the man himself. In 1928, The Saturday Evening Post published a glowing 8-part autobiography of Mussolini. Nothing says probing, critical journalism like letting people write articles about themselves!
The intellectual, political and commercial elites were no less enamored of the man. Responding to the question “Is there a dearth of great men?” from the Literary Digest in 1927, editors listed Mussolini as Exhibit A that there was no such dearth. (Lenin came in second.)
James A. Farrell–head of US Steel–called him “the greatest living man in the world.” Rexford Guy Tugwell–of FDR’s Brain Trust–described Italian fascism as “the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen. It makes me envious.”
In 1926, Columbia University founded Casa Italiana: Fascism’s “veritable home in America” and a “school house for budding Fascist ideologues.”
But nowhere was the praise louder than from the entertainment celebrities of the day. Poet Wallace Stevens (pardon the racial epithets) supported Mussolini even after the invasion of Ethiopia: “I am pro-Mussolini, personally. The Italians have as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors.” Comedian Will Rogers wrote that Mussolini is “some wop. I’m pretty high on that bird” and went on to say that “[d]ictator form of government is the greatest form of government: that is if you have the right dictator.”
You’re the Great Houdini!
You’re the top!
You are Mussolini!
Hollywood weighed in with the 1923 film The Eternal City in which the heroic fascists took control of Italy from the nefarious communists. A decade later, Columbia Pictures released a documentary entitled Mussolini Speaks that was overseen by Mussolini himself. Advertising for the movie claimed “it appeals to all RED BLOODED AMERICANS” and even that “it might be the ANSWER TO AMERICA’S NEEDS.”
Even the Nazi party had their own supporters in the Angl0-American left for a time. In 1932, H. G. Wells famously told the Young Liberals at Oxford that progressives must become “liberal fascists” and “enlightened Nazis.” W. E. B. DuBois–though certainly not unconditionally supportive of the Nazis–was at least partially defensive when he wrote in 1937 that the rise of the Nazi dictatorship was “absolutely necessary to get the state in order,” and that “there is today, in some respects, more democracy in Germany than there has been in years past.”
Of course World War II changed all of this. Even nuanced support for Hitler was unthinkable, and as Mussolini allied with Hitler he had also become the enemy. As an ally of Hitler–and despite the fact that the Italian fascists were never anti-Semitic until forced into it by the Nazis–Mussolini subsequently assumed guilt by association for the vile crimes of the Holocaust.
All of this caused American progressives to do three things: First of all, they denied ever supporting Mussolini and fascism in the first place. Secondly, they shifted their hero-worship to fascism’s closest cousin: revolutionary communism. And, thirdly, they created the myth that fascism and communism were not only ideologically distinct but that they were polar opposites. Fascism was the far right, and communism was the far left. Obviously liberals couldn’t have ever supported fascism: that was the wrong side of the political spectrum!
The notion that fascism and communism are ideologically opposed has never made any sense. The prototypical fascists–the Nazis–were the national socialist party of Germany. Mussolini was himself a socialist before inventing fascism, and saw fascism as an extension rather than repudiation of his own socialist past. Even the fact that fascists and communists hated each other supports the conclusion that they were similar ideologies: they had to compete for the same pool of radical, idealistic followers. The fascists had to take control of the radical progressives before they could take control of their home countries.
Although there were some ideological differences–fascists were sometimes willing to allow capitalist institutions to survive as long as they were under the ultimate control of the state–the only real difference was that fascism is hyper-nationalistic and communism is pan-nationalistic. That’s it. Take nationalism out of the picture and revolutionary communism and fascism are essentially the same thing: ideologies that promise utopian progressivism in exchange for totalitarian state-control.
So when Mussolini fell from favor, the American left found a new love affair in the already burgeoning romance with Uncle Joe Stalin. Indeed the same Lincoln Steffens who lauded Mussolini also famously said of Stalin’s Russia in 1933: “I have seen the future, and it works!” In the decades following the end of World War II, Stalin could have asked for no better apologists than then same brand of American elites who had previously defended Mussolini. Other Marxists–like Castro and Che–have won similar concessions. When they are not praised outright by the far American left they are at least tolerated as sort of benign, well-intentioned children. “Those cuddly communists, always starting revolutions to try and free the workers!”
Love Notes to Fascism (Now)
Although there’s always some idiot American intellectual comparing everyday working Americans who were killed in the 9/11 attacks to Nazis or some clueless American celebrity wearing a hip Maoist bag in a country where Maoist guerrillas killed tens of thousands, you’d think that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism that even the far American left would have learned to stop writing love notes to fascists. Or at least to stop being so open about it.
But, apparently, you’d be wrong.
Exhibit A: Michael Moore
Michael Moore is the definition of a useful idiot. It apparently never occurred to him–in the filming of his movie Sicko–that if he went to Cuba and asked for medical treatment for some American citizens that maybe, just possibly, the Cuban PR response wouldn’t be indicative of the sort of health care that your average Cuban actually receives on a day-to-day basis.
I am personally affected by good people who struggle, who work hard and who’ve had their lives ruined by decisions that are made by people who do not have their best interest at heart, but who have the best interest of the bottom line, of the company, at heart.
Sounds good so far. That’s the kind of understandable idealism I can respect. But his examples to try and indict the capitalist system for every economic tragedy are an exercise in “how not to make an argument.”
First of all we’ve got:
the Chicago glass and window company whose employees barricaded themselves to demand their pay after management laid off all 250 employees when the bank line of credit dried up.
This is a textbook example of failing to differentiate between a tragedy and a crime. If the company fires 250 people because they are greedy SOBs who hate all that is good and beautiful in the world, that’s one thing. And it’s an example of the fact “people are sometimes mean,” not “capitalism is of the devil.” If the company fires 250 people because they ran out of money and the entire company will go out of business otherwise, well then that’s a different matter. And it’s an example of the fact that “stuff happens,” not “capitalism is the devil.”
Then we’ve got:
the story of a privately-run juvenile detention center in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, that paid off judges to lock up juvenile offenders. One boy said he had done little more than throw a piece of meat at his mother’s boyfriend during a fight at the dinner table, and a teenage girl’s offense was making fun of her school’s vice principal on a MySpace page.
That’s my personal favorite because it is a very real example of injustice, and one that could have only been perpetuated by collusion between government and private industry. You know, the sort of thing that happens when the government meddles with the private market. That’s like trying to argue that capitalism is horrific by holding up pictures of all the Russian children who died thanks to Stalin’s artificial famines. If Michael Moore wants to make a movie about how bad government corruption can be, that’s fine. And the conclusion would be “so let’s keep a tight eye on government”. The real injustice was jailing kids who didn’t deserve it, right? And that was in the government’s court. Newsflash, Michael Moore, the more power you give to government the more tempting of a target it becomes for corruption. Instead, however, it seems that Moore thinks “paying people bribes to leverage government contacts” is synonymous with capitalism. I guess there’s a reason he makes movies instead of teaching economics.
Now you might be wondering how this ties back into Love Notes to Fascism. Here’s how: Moore considers actions like those of the Chicago workers (hey, at least they didn’t kidnap their management like the French) to be part of an anti-capitalists revolution. A revolution that “began November 4th.”
Now take a look at what Michael Moore had to say on his blog when Obama removed the CEO of General Motors (emphasis mine):
I simply can’t believe it. This stunning, unprecedented action has left me speechless for the past two days. I keep saying, “Did Obama really fire the chairman of General Motors? The wealthiest and most powerful corporation of the 20th century? Can he do that? Really? Well, damn! What else can he do?!”
This bold move has sent the heads of corporate America spinning and spewing pea soup. Obama has issued this edict: The government of, by, and for the people is in charge here, not big business… The stock market plunged as the masters of the universe asked themselves, “Am I next?” And they whispered to each other, “What are we going to do about this Obama?”
Not much, fellows. He has the massive will of the American people behind him — and he has been granted permission by us to do what he sees fit.
This may come as a shock to Michael Moore, but we elected a president, not a Supreme Dictator for Life. And the actions that President Obama can take are constrained by the United States Constitution–including the checks and balances of the judiciary and legislative branches–and not “what he sees fit.”
At the time I wrote up a short piece on Michael Moore’s fascist love note and then chalked it up to the general rule that “there’s always some idiot.” But it turns out that Michael Moore’s anti-capitalist screed wasn’t the only progressive film at Cannes. Nope! In the tradition of Hollywood love notes to Mussolini, Oliver Stone has unveiled his biography of Hugo Chavez. Congratulations, Mr. Stone, you are Exhibit B. According to Reuters, Stone claims that:
the U.S. media and government have demonized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other leftist South American leaders, and… that they were right to stand up to Washington.
He goes on:
I think the movie, if you’ve seen it, shows very clearly the level of stupidity in the kind of broad statements that are made about Mr. Chavez. But I didn’t want to make a movie only about the American media’s attacks. I felt that that was too small for what this man is about. This man is a big phenomenon.
So we travelled in a road trip kind of movie to visit these other presidents and we saw the positive side of what is going on, the sweeping change in this region. It’s a very important historical phenomenon that is … ignored in America.
Then Chavez weighed in himself:
What’s happening in Latin America is like a Renaissance.
Really? Is shutting down opposition media, jailing dissenters, seizing and nationalizing other people’s property to pay off your voters, and amending the constitution so that you can rule for life and the other branches of government are nothing more than rubber-stamps and kangaroo courts what you would call a Renaissance?
That’s funny, I would have used a different word.
And if you think this kind of attitude is isolated in Hollywood, then here’s the Chief Diversity Officer at the FCC (an Obama appointee) with his own take on Chavez:
Then there’s LA Congresswomen Watson weighing in on Fidel Castro:
Note the applause. Given the history of liberals and their fascist idols (Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, etc.) you’d think they would have learned that this way leads only to embarrassment for them and the deaths of thousands or millions of innocent civilians for everyone else.
I guess they just won’t learn.
Robert Wallace is classical liberal studying economics in graduate school. He and his wife work as business analysis consultants, and they live as undercover conservatives with their two small children in a socialist bastion of a college town. He has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.