‘Fascism’: Déjà Vu All Over Again

‘Fascism’: Déjà Vu All Over Again


The partly successful exclusion of Patrick J. Buchanan from American public life sheds light on a problem which might be called "Buchananization" – the opposite of canonization. Question the general trend of Uncle’s Imperial New Order on any point, these days, and there you are, a terrible "fascist." This is great fun for the Left, the most they’ve had since they crusaded alongside Uncle Joe against the real fascists in the 1940s.

It is true that Limousine Liberals, parlor pinks, and other lefties held Fascism, The Smear, in reserve through the 1950s and ‘60s, for special occasions. This wasn’t a completely happy time for them since the Official Emergency and Crusade of those years cast communism as the enemy, and – as James Burnham often pointed out – fighting the Left never felt as natural to them as ridding the earth of right-wing bigots and regimes.


Still, the liberals and lefties did get a crusade which justified an endless heaping-up of post-constitutional jurisdictions and power in Washington, very useful for totally reconstructing American society both during and after the Great Emergency. They weren’t entirely unhappy.

In that reasonably happy era, the Official Media presented the political spectrum as a set of structuralist "binary oppositions" with some terms so "unmarked" as to be missing. If only Levy-Strauss had been around to help. First, came the Liberals, kindly sorts who wanted to do good: Mass Transit, Federal Highways, Federal Aid to Education (but no federal control, of course), etc. Abroad, they wished to build democracy, contain communism, and give every downtrodden foreigner a school lunch. Their "cause [was] mankind," as Senator Hubert Humphrey, a typical spokesman, put it. Then came the Moderates, less high-minded but still salonfaehig. Their kindness wasn’t cosmic, but did earn them praise in the press, especially insofar as they kept the Republican Party from "isolationist" sin.

Moving rightward, we skip the absent category of Conservatives and go straight to Ultra-Conservatives, followed closely by Radical Rightists and other extremists. Officially, there could be respectable Conservatives, but Liberals seldom handed out the unadorned C-word, having given the only available ones to Clinton Rossiter, Herbert Agar, Walter Lippman(!), and Peter Viereck. These "Conservatives" served to distract attention from the absence, otherwise, of the whole category. Liberals already saw most rightists as extremists and incipient storm troopers, who were just hiding their armbands and giving their funny salutes indoors. For years, Benjamin Epstein and Arnold Forster kept writing the same book, which lumped everyone to the right of Nelson Rockefeller in with the KKK and the handful of genuine anti-Semites who could be scraped up at the time.


Epstein and Forster didn’t set the tone, however. One could still be a "dupe." Liberals and lefties made fewer claims then for their telepathic skills and didn’t always see straight into their opponents’ hearts to the (expected) fascist/Nazi core. They did a lot of mind-reading on Barry Goldwater in 1964, but that was a genuine emergency for them. Generally, they could let rank-and-file rightists off as dupes – red-necked victims of the airborne propaganda of H.L. Hunt, the Reverend Carl MacIntire, and Dan Smoot. Ultras were the sort of folk, then, who only complained about things because they were undereducated, status-anxious lower middles, easily led around by right-wing dog-food millionaires who were "using" them to prevent repeal of the Dog Food Depletion Allowance or something like that. Give any one of them a bureaucratic berth or membership in an AFL-CIO union, and he (or she!) would soon settle down to greet the radiant future with full social-democratic enthusiasm.


So much for the mainstream media’s socially constructed political spectrum. There was, however, a higher academic take on right-wing dissent. The heavy lifting here was done by sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, the immigrant Marxist party animal Theodore Adorno, end-of-ideology sociologist Daniel Bell, the tame "conservative" Peter Viereck, and historian Richard Hoftstadter, whose treatment of Charles Beard I noted in a previous column.

Hofstadter called Birchers and Goldwaterites "pseudo-conservatives," by which he meant that good Conservatives were okay, if there were any. A good Conservative was someone like Viereck, so decent that he wanted to conserve the New Deal while fighting Joe McCarthy and those overseas communists, too. A decent Conservative, in short, supported big government, Cold War liberalism, and the American empire, and made marginal criticisms about greater efficiency and focus. The pseudos, alternately "isolationist" and warlike, were a standing danger.

History’s famous irreversible clock foretold that fossilized laissez faire liberals were doomed to go astray. They were liberal in 1832, but now these ignorant farmers and petty-bourgeois were up the sociological creek sans paddle; they failed to see that Modernization made "bigness" in government, business, and labor inevitable. They overlooked the many social benefits which accrue when trade unionists beat up "strike-breakers" and blindly refused to sign up for interest-group politics overseen by steadily growing government – the only form of politics now possible.

Going astray, the pseudos and ultras would be drawn towards fascism. Casting aside the "impossible" restoration of laissez faire and limited government, they would settle for big government which catered to their interests. In some ways, this is the actual story of the right-wing Establishment’s long march from its Buckleyite beginnings around 1955 to its "successes" in giving us Reagan, Bush, and Newt, all keen enough on conserving the New Deal, waging the Cold War, and extending the empire. They, indeed, could be called "pseudo-conservatives," because there was nothing very conservative, much less libertarian in their program. Theirs was precisely the "decent conservatism" demanded by Cold War liberals in the 1960s.

They got little credit for all this realism and decency and were attacked for "dismantling" big government and for bringing back laissez faire. And yet big government seems healthy enough, the empire grows, and laissez faire seems rather absent. Some of this response was purely partisan, as Walter Karp would say, with the "outs" attacking the "ins" for allegedly implementing their program, which program the "ins" had tossed into the first handy garbage can on coming to power. More importantly, the chattering classes and the press had moved leftward since the sixties and the "decent" conservative position of 1963 now seemed the darkest Reaction. Poor Newt was said to be bent upon mass starvation – right there in the streets – of widows, old folks, and ethnic minorities, when even that would have been more of a plan than he actually had. The lesson may be that whatever the success of televangelists, politicized Christians, empty Republican suits, etc., the political spectrum always moves to the left, as defined by the permanent bureaucracies and their academic/media allies. (We can’t ignore the possibility that there may be "decent leftists" out there who object to some of that program.)


If Hoftstadter’s good conservatives now share power on the basis of a watered-down program of vacuous, museum-quality Rockefeller Republicanism, are the results any more – or less – "fascist" than when kindly Liberals and jovial Moderates had centralized power mostly to themselves? Apparently not. And the Non-Respectable Right – are they the real fascists, to be included in any search for the real killers? For the most part, no.


This brings us to the Old Right critique of the New Deal. This could be rejected as a pre-emptive strike by the real fascists to shift the blame onto their enemies. But John T. Flynn, Congressman Samuel Pettengill, and John Chamberlain took up this thread before the Old Right was fully formed, at a time when well-meaning Liberals were writing about all the interesting things Mussolini was doing. Some Liberals found in fascism a pragmatic approach which, if divorced from the one-party state and its noisy, militaristic style, could occupy the middle ground between "run-away capitalism" and Soviet communism. After all, society had to be rationally reconstructed, some way, didn’t it?

As Mussolini’s reputation fell, comparison of New Deal and fascist corporatism became the concern of a few "extremists." More recently, historians have taken a second look at the actual structural parallels in these corporatist experiments.1 While it is now generally agreed that corporatism survived the demise of fascism, it can also be asked whether fascism survived its supposed death.

In 1954, Hofstadter chided those who had worried about "several close parallels" between FDR’s N.R.A. and fascist corporatism. There are more than "several" parallels. In 1944, John T. Flynn made the case in As We Go Marching, where he enumerated the stigmata of generic fascism, surveyed the interwar policies of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and pointed to uncomfortably similar American policies.2 For Flynn, the hallmarks of fascism were: 1) unrestrained government; 2) an absolute leader responsible to a single party; 3) a planned economy with nominal private ownership of the means of production; 4) bureaucracy and administrative "law"; 5) state control of the financial sector; 6) permanent economic manipulation via deficit spending; 7) militarism, and 8) imperialism (pp. 161-62). He proceeded to show that all these were alive and well under the wartime New Deal administration (pp. 166-258). Pragmatic American liberalism had produced "a genteel fascism" without the ethnic persecutions and full-scale executive dictatorship seen overseas. Flynn found this insufficiently cheering. Some may call Flynn’s catalogue of fascist traits arbitrary. Perhaps, but Flynn listed things he found; he did not make them up.

Fascism was an ideological garage sale combining integral nationalism, militarism, imperialism, corporatism, the leader principle, populism, racialism, anti-Semitism, a doctrine of the enemy, a love/hate relationship with modernity, national regeneration, Vitalism/pragmatism/will-to-power, anti-Marxism, anti-egalitarianism, etc. – most of which had served some time on the Left. Integral nationalism could be seen already in the French Revolution. Political anti-Semitism was pioneered by the 19th-century Left (Jews and capitalists being somewhat interchangeable for them) and was only taken up later by right-wing nationalists, who used it against liberalism. It was largely absent from Italian fascism. Marx and Engels had their racial views, which were very politically incorrect, as Nathaniel Weyl has shown in a very neglected book.3 It was socialists who wrote of killing millions of their enemies on the basis of class and racial identity.4 When later socialists became politicians and bureaucrats, they tended to disown such views – leaving aside that peculiar Sonderweg – or separate path – followed in Russia.


As heirs of classical liberalism the Old Right saw all state interference in the economy as "collectivism." In seeking analogues for the New Deal, those who made the comparison with fascist corporatism showed superior perception. This analogy persisted on the Radical Right.

In 1968 the Radical Right writer Kent Steffgen produced a polemic against then California Governor Ronald Reagan, Here’s the Rest of Him. His overall conclusion: "America is offered the choice between government of limited powers and the corporate state. One is a nation, the other an empire." He saw Reagan as a Rockefeller Republican, who was on the wrong side of that choice. Reagan no more "dismantled" big government in California than he later did at the federal level. If you folks had read Steffgen in 1968, you could have avoided some disappointment.


The most economical explanation of fascism is this: In the late 19th century, right- and left-wing enemies of laissez faire liberalism converged on a program of social imperialism and social nationalism. Leftists who concluded that socialism could only be realized within existing nation-states and rightists who rejected laissez faire capitalism in favor of social programs for their co-nationals increasingly saw eye to eye. They called for "national socialism" or "national syndicalism."

The catastrophe of World War I only intensified these strivings. Then, the International Socialists put their oar in, in Russia and in the short-lived Soviet republics in Bavaria, Hungary, and elsewhere. Everywhere, the Left talked bloody, total destruction of existing society, producing the reaction which brought fascists to power. Heirs to many of the same destructive ideas (with a few original ones), national socialists posed, for a time, as the only alternative to murderous communism. World War II helped obscure the actual similarities between all these regimes. Poorly focused Cold War polemics about "totalitarianism" further obscured them.


Was fascism right or left? Is the almost comic-opera episode in Italy really to be equated, aside from the accidents of war, with the thorough-going criminality of the National Socialist regime in Germany? Or should the latter be classified with the "national communism" (in practice) of Stalin? As the political scientists say, more research is necessary.

The Old Right and its successors sensed that these regimes had much in common. I remember a classic issue of Human Events in 1963 or 1964 with Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin on the cover, characterized as three socialist dictators. At a higher level of sophistication, historian Hugh Thomas and political scientist A. James Gregor have described fascism as "a heresy of the Left.5


There is an enormous literature on fascism. I have slogged through a lot of it – with a growing feeling that, here, more literature may be the enemy of clarity. I propose, for now, a simple practical procedure. 1) The next time Uncle or a Certified Ally denounces domestic or foreign opponents as "fascists," check whether those opponents have funny salutes, torch-light parades, armbands, a program combining bad ideas from Right and Left, and so on. 2) Now look at the government making the accusation. Does it display more than half of the traits on John T. Flynn’s or any other reasonable list of fascist traits? Hmmm.

If the government in question seems about as "fascist" as the proposed enemy du jour, do not, I repeat do not sign up for some sort of Exceptional Intervention. For that matter, don’t sign up ever. There is no opposition anywhere that can’t be represented as fascist. There probably are real fascists out there. I don’t think it’s our problem unless they show up with armies on our shores. Anyone who looks into it will find, I expect, that the makers of our elusive foreign policies have – over the long haul – backed more fascists than they have opposed. Situational antifascism is the tactic of the day. It may be even more of a snare and a delusion than Cold War anti-communism was.


  1. (1) John P. Diggins, “Flirtation with Fascism: American Pragmatic Liberals and Mussolini’s Italy,” American Historical Review, 71 (1966), pp. 487-506, and John A. Garraty, “The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression,” ibid., 78, 4 (1973), pp. 907-44.
  2. (2) John T. Flynn, As We Go Marching (New York: Free Life Editions, 1973 [1944]).
  3. (3) Nathaniel Weyl, Karl Marx: Racist (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1979).
  4. (4) KarlHeinz Weissmann, "The Epoch of National Socialism," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 12, 2 (Fall 1996), pp.253-286.
  5. (5) A. James Gregor, The Fascist Persuasion in Radical Politics (Princeton, 1974), esp. pp. 260-321 on Castroism as an Iberian-fascist movement passing as Marxist, and Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 1490ff.