Who’s a Fascist?

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

Having participated this weekend in an Internet discussion courtesy of Paul Craig Roberts, it seems to me that "fascist" is bandied about on the right in the same careless way as one finds on the left. Note that the anti—New Deal American Right in the thirties fell over themselves denouncing FDR and his minions as American Mussolinians. The Old Right associated the fascists with a corporatist economy, welfare programs, and military rearmament, all of which they despised. The fact that the New Republic and other American leftist organs then raved about the virtues of Latin fascism and often considered it soft Communism may have contributed to the illusion that big-government boosters at home were fascists in a state of denial. Recently the Old Right has revived the same charge of fascism and hurled it at the neoconservatives. Because neocons are imperialists, militarists, and enthusiasts for centralized government (all of which they admittedly are), they must also be fascists. After all, didn’t Mussolini teach his nation to do everything for the state and nothing against it? How is this different from Bill Kristol’s view that to be an American patriot one must love the American state?

While Kristol’s "state" does not differ from Mussolini’s fascist creation by being truly lovable (God knows it is not!), it may be possible to point out certain palpable differences between the two forms of state worship. Neoconservatives and fascists do not share the same historical context; nor are they reacting against the same enemies. Fascism was an interwar phenomenon and one bound up with a reaction against the revolutionary Left in Italy, Spain, Austria, and other European countries. It was also profoundly reactionary, in the sense that it valued certain classical conservative principles, like hierarchy, patriarchy and the restoration of antiquity, but believed it was only possible to bring about what it wanted through a constructivist project. Therefore Mussolini and his counterparts created a neoclassical version of a pre-bourgeois society, which was cobbled together with Roman republican and Spartan models. Fascists also stressed the organic unity of the nation, something that points to the semantic problem incurred by critics of the neoconservatives who wish to see them as "multicultural" fascists. Although not all fascists were racialists (the German case was the lunatic exception), most of them were avowed anti-internationalists and would not have approved of anything as destabilizing as immigration expansion. In the 1930s the Italian fascist government even tried to make sure that government workers would marry ethnic Italians.

Peter Brimelow was correct to observe in last weekend’s Internet chat that neoconservatives believe not in fascism but in "Goldbergism" when they push for open borders and an aggressive foreign policy in the name of human rights. Jonah Goldberg, one of their major political theorists, has explained on NROnline that European conservatives like Joseph de Maistre were really on the left, seeing that they rejected "human rights," which is the essence of a conservative belief system. No matter how silly Goldberg’s interpretation may seem, what he enunciates is the current neoconservative dogma that justifies imperial expansion. And it is hard to grasp anything fascist about Goldberg’s redefinition of conservatism. Goldberg arrives at his view from reading the English social democratic historian Isaiah Berlin, who plays up the derivation of fascist thinking from Maistre’s attack on the universalism and abstract ideals of the French Revolution. Although Berlin overstates this connection, he is nonetheless justified in perceiving the fascists as being connected to European counterrevolutionary traditions. The neoconservatives are not only not connected in any way to such traditions but are clearly on the side of what Michael Ledeen calls the "creative destruction" of the social and cultural traditions of other peoples.

Without judging the merits of this project, it seems that those who pursue it are not definable as fascists. They may in fact be far more destructive but are not a subgenus of interwar fascists who have landed up in our society. Depicting them as such depends on an underdetermined definition that serves strictly polemical ends. Just because all modern Western industrial states have large administrations that socialize the family and feature public education does not make them "fascist." Fascists took advantage of a political paradigm they shared with non-fascist modern governments, in order to achieve in some cases counterrevolutionary ends. But they did not initiate the welfare state, which flourished without the fascists, on the Euro-American left. Nor were the fascists unique in having military dictators and wars of expansion. Both Tom Woods’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and Tom DiLorenzo’s study of the Great Emancipator as state-builder provide illustrations of Lincoln’s authoritarian manner that show bad European habits could crop up here as well. But that happened generations before there was a fascist movement.

It is not accurate to refer to Abraham Lincoln as a "fascist," because he applied military force to quell the Southern secession and ruled as a military dictator. Political leaders can do things that are open to condemnation without being fascists. It would also not be irrelevant to cite the case of one of Lincoln’s precursors, Oliver Cromwell, who also slaughtered secessionists, to reunite the United Kingdom, and whom the young Lincoln saw as someone he wished to emulate. Yet curiously the two men, long viewed as being alike in their nationalist fervor, connection to an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, and role as social modernizers, have contributed to very different cults. After being identified for centuries with republicanism and Protestant sectarians, Cromwell became a hero for rightwing English nationalists, including the fascist followers of Sir Oswald Mosley in the late thirties. Lincoln, by contrast, has become a god figure for the Left, from the communist Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting in the Spanish Civil War down to the civil rights movement and his current apotheosis, as the incarnation of global democratic ideals. My friend Tom Di Lorenzo has made this last point clear by debating Lincoln-admirers, who invariably bring with them leftist agendas. But neither Cromwell nor Lincoln produced the twentieth-century cults that sprang up around their putative achievements. The Irish are certainly entitled to dislike Cromwell and his son-in-law for devastating their land during the English Civil War and like Paul Craig Roberts, I cannot find any sane reason for a Southerner whose family suffered during Lincoln’s invasion of the South to revere this brutal nationalist. But neither figure belonged to the twentieth century or to its ideological wars; and both have been co-opted to symbolize battles that are no longer theirs. Like Cromwell, Lincoln was neither a fascist nor a neocon.

December 2, 2004

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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