Roads to Fascism: Sixty Years Later

Sixty years ago, in 1944, as the tide of World War II was turning in favor of the Allies, most western democracies thought of fascism as the antithesis of their own nations’ political and economic trends. Progressive-minded folks saw fascism as “right-wing,” as market capitalism taken to its fullest extreme; whereas the direction in which, e.g., Britain and the United States were moving was seen as “left-wing,” toward regulatory intervention and social democracy. How could two systems be more different? In that same year, however, three books were published that brought a most unpopular and unwelcome message: namely, that the domestic and foreign policies of countries like Britain and the United States were becoming increasingly fascistic. Just as William Graham Sumner had warned in 1898 that America’s victory in the Spanish-American War, by helping to transform the U.S. into an imperial power on the Spanish model, amounted in ideological terms to the Conquest of the United States by Spain, so these three books warned that while western democracies might be defeating their fascist enemies, they were also becoming their imitators. The best-known of these works is Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. While the book’s anti-statism may not seem particularly radical by libertarian standards, or even in comparison with Hayek’s later work, its message was shocking to the intellectual mainstream of the day. Hayek showed how Nazism (National Socialism) really was, just as it claimed to be, a form of socialism rather than capitalism; and he explained painstakingly how economic planning, regulation, and intervention pave the way to totalitarianism by building up a power structure that will inevitably be seized by the most power-hungry and unscrupulous. For his pains Hayek was denounced as “Hitlerian” (sic). A closely related work is Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (see also the e-text), by Hayek’s teacher Ludwig von Mises. Mises traces the rise of Nazism in Germany and demonstrates the surprising extent to which it was driven by interventionist economic considerations. He explains how protectionist economic policies lead by their own inner logic to a dictatorial domestic policy and a bellicose foreign policy; and even Hitler’s racist ideology is shown to serve the function of disarming critics of Nazi economic doctrines. (Mises arguably goes too far in treating protectionism as virtually the sole driving force behind Nazism, downplaying the independent significance of ideological and cultural factors — just as Leonard Peikoff made the reverse mistake in The Ominous Parallels — but in light of the brilliance of Mises’ analysis this is a minor quibble.) The third book in this group is As We Go Marching by John T. Flynn, the famous “Old Right” critic of FDR. Flynn traces the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, and points out the disturbing similarities of both movements to the policies of the New Deal. Like Mises — and unlike today’s pro-war libertarians — Flynn understood the essential interconnection between military adventurism abroad and corporatist fascism at home. (Unfortunately, As We Go Marching appears to be out of print; this would be a good year for someone to republish it!) This year marks the 60th anniversary of these books’ publication. The Road to Serfdom, Omnipotent Government, and As We Go Marching belong on every freedom-lover’s bookshelf. In the present political climate, when the U.S. government is making ever-bolder strides toward fascism while mouthing slogans of freedom, their message is more worth pondering than ever.

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