They Saw It Coming

They Saw It Coming: The 19th-Century Libertarian Critique of Fascism

by Roderick T. Long by Roderick T. Long

To speak of a 19th-century libertarian critique of fascism might seem anachronistic, since fascism is generally understood as a 20th-century phenomenon. But it did not spring from nothing, and the libertarians of the 19th century saw it in the making.

Fascism differs from its close cousins, Communism and aristocratic conservatism, in several important ways. Let’s begin with its difference from Communism. First, where Communism seeks to substitute the state for private ownership, fascism seeks to incorporate or co-opt private ownership into the state apparatus through public-private partnership. Thus fascism tends to be more tempting than Communism to wealthy interests who may see it as a way to insulate their economic power from competition through forced cartelization and other corporatist stratagems. Second, where Communist ideology tends to be cosmopolitan and internationalist, fascist ideology tends to be chauvinistically nationalist, stressing a particularist allegiance to one’s country, culture, or ethnicity; along with this goes a suspicion of rationalism, a preference for economic autarky, and a view of life as one of inevitable but glorious struggle. Fascism also tends to cultivate a u201Cfolksyu201D or vlkisch u201Cman of the people,u201D u201Cpragmatism over principles,u201D u201Cheart over head,u201D u201Cpay no attention to those pointy-headed intellectualsu201D rhetorical style.

These contrasts with Communism should not be overstated, of course. Communist governments cannot afford to suppress private ownership entirely, since doing so leads swiftly to economic collapse. Moreover, however internationalist and cosmopolitan Communist regimes may be in theory, they tend to be just as chauvinistically nationalist in practice as their fascist cousins; while on the other hand fascist regimes are sometimes perfectly willing to pay lip service to liberal universalism. All the same, there is a difference in emphasis and in strategy between fascism and Communism here. When faced with existing institutions that threaten the power of the state — be they corporations, churches, the family, tradition — the Communist impulse is by and large to abolish them, while the fascist impulse is by and large to absorb them.

Power structures external to the state are potential rivals to the state’s own power, and so states always have some reason to seek their abolition; Communism gives that tendency full rein. But power structures external to the state are also potential allies of the state, particularly if they serve to encourage habits of subordination and regimentation in the populace, and so the potential always exists for a mutually beneficial partnership; herein lies the fascist strategy.

The respects in which fascism differs from Communism might seem to align it rather more closely with the traditional aristocratic conservatism of the ancien rgime, which is likewise particularist, corporatist, mercantilist, nationalist, militarist, patriarchal, and anti-rationalist. But fascism differs from old-style conservatism in embracing an ideal of industrial progress directed by managerial technocrats, as well as in adopting a populist stance of championing the u201Clittle guyu201D against elites — remember the folksiness. (If fascism’s technocratic tendencies appear to conflict with its anti-rationalist tendencies, well, in the words of proto-fascist Moeller van den Bruck, u201Cwe must be strong enough to live in contradictions.u201D)

Some of the differences between fascism and the older conservatism may be due to the advances won by their common foes, the liberals. The progress of liberalism and of industry had the effect of shifting wealth, at least in part, from the traditional aristocracy to new private hands, thus creating new private interest groups with the ability to operate as political entrepreneurs; hence, perhaps, the tendency toward the emergence of a plutocratic class nominally outside the traditional state apparatus. Likewise the progress of democracy meant that plutocracy could hope to triumph only by donning populist guise; hence the paradox of an elitist movement marching forward under the banner of anti-elitism — a prime example in U. S. history being antitrust laws and other allegedly anti-big-business legislation being vigorously lobbied for by big business itself. (Cf. Murray Rothbard’s u201CWar Collectivism in World War I,u201D Paul Weaver’s The Suicidal Corporation: How Big Business Fails America, Gabriel Kolko’s Railroads and Regulation, 1877—-1916 and Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900—1916, Butler Shaffer’s In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938, Roy Childs’ u201CBig Business and the Rise of American Statism,u201D Joseph Stromberg’s u201CPolitical Economy of Liberal Corporatismu201D and u201CThe Role of State Monopoly Capitalism in the American Empire,u201D Walter Grinder & John Hagel’s u201CToward a Theory of State Capitalism: Ultimate Decision-Making and Class Structure,u201D etc.) Hence fascism’s odd fusion of privilege and folksiness; one might call it a movement that thinks like Halliburton and talks like George W. Bush.

The partnership between the official state apparatus and the nominally private beneficiaries of state power was a familiar theme for 19th-century libertarians like Frdric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari, who extended and radicalised Adam Smith’s critique of mercantilist protectionism as a scheme for benefiting concentrated business interests at the expense of the general public. In Molinari’s words, businesses u201Casked the government to safeguard their monopolies by the same methods that it had put into effect for protecting its own.u201D (u201CThe Evolution of Protectionism.u201D) Libertarian sociologists like Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer had developed an entire pre-Marxian theory of class conflict, according to which the key to the position of the ruling class is not, contra Marx, access to the means of production, but rather access to political power. (Cf. David Hart’s Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, Leonard Liggio’s u201CCharles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism,u201D Ralph Raico’s u201CClassical Liberal Exploitation Theory,u201D Mark Weinburg’s u201CSocial Analysis of Three Early 19th-Century Classical Liberals,u201D etc.) When Marx called the French government u201Ca joint-stock company for the exploitation of France’s national wealthu201D on behalf of the bourgeois elite and at the expense of production and commerce (u201CClass Struggles in Franceu201D), he was only echoing what libertarians had been saying for decades.

Herbert Spencer likewise complained of the influence of u201Crailway autocratsu201D in American politics, u201Coverriding the rights of shareholdersu201D and u201Cdominating over courts of justice and State governments.u201D (u201CThe Americans.u201D) And Lysander Spooner denounced the financial and banking elite, writing as follows:

Among savages, mere physical strength, on the part of one man, may enable him to rob, enslave, or kill another man. … But with (so-called) civilized peoples … by whom soldiers in any requisite number, and other instrumentalities of war in any requisite amount, can always be had for money, the question of war, and consequently the question of power, is little else than a mere question of money. As a necessary consequence, those who stand ready to furnish this money, are the real rulers. … [The] nominal rulers, the emperors and kings and parliaments, are anything but the real rulers of their respective countries. They are little or nothing else than mere tools, employed by the wealthy to rob, enslave, and (if need be) murder those who have less wealth, or none at all. … [The] so-called sovereigns, in these different governments, are simply the heads, or chiefs, of different bands of robbers and murderers. And these heads or chiefs are dependent upon the lenders of blood-money for the means to carry on their robberies and murders. They could not sustain themselves a moment but for the loans made to them by these blood-money loan-mongers. … In addition to paying the interest on their bonds, they perhaps grant to the holders of them great monopolies in banking, like the Banks of England, of France, and of Vienna; with the agreement that these banks shall furnish money whenever, in sudden emergencies, it may be necessary to shoot down more of their people. Perhaps also, by means of tariffs on competing imports, they give great monopolies to certain branches of industry, in which these lenders of blood-money are engaged. They also, by unequal taxation, exempt wholly or partially the property of these loan-mongers, and throw corresponding burdens upon those who are too poor and weak to resist. (No Treason VI.) As this quotation from Spooner shows, 19th-century libertarians also saw a connection between plutocracy and militarism, and sharply criticised what today would be called the military-industrial complex. Spencer, for example, railed against the u201Cmilitary aid and state-conferred privilegesu201D enjoyed by the East India Company, which enabled it to commit u201Cdeeds of blood and rapineu201D in India where u201Cthe police authorities league with wealthy scampsu201D to u201Callow the machinery of the law to be used for purposes of extortion.u201D Such abuses, Spencer noted, were u201Cmainly due to the carrying on of state-management, and with the help of state-funds and state-force.u201D Had the military might of the British Empire not been placed at the disposal of the Company’s directors, u201Ctheir defenceless state would have compelled themu201D to behave differently; they would of necessity have u201Cturned their attention wholly to the development of commerce, and conducted themselves peaceably.u201D (Social Statics, ch. 27.) Writing in the mid-1800s, Spencer complained especially of the u201Cgrievous salt monopolyu201D — which would of course become the chief catalyst for the Indian independence movement nearly a century later.

But who [Spencer wrote] are the gainers? The monopolists. … Into their pockets, in the shape of salaries to civil and military officers, dividends of profits, etc., has gone a large part of the enormous revenue of the East India company. … The rich owners of colonial property must have protection, as well as their brethren, the landowners of England — the one their prohibitive duties, the other their corn laws; and the resources of the poor, starved, overburdened people must be still further drained, to augment the overflowing wealth of their rulers. (u201CThe Proper Sphere of Government.u201D) Thus plutocracy, these libertarian writers thought, drives militarism. But they also held that militarism drives plutocracy. Thus the American Spencerian William Graham Sumner argued:

[M]ilitarism, expansion and imperialism will all favor plutocracy. In the first place, war and expansion will favor jobbery, both in the dependencies and at home. In the second place, they will take away the attention of the people from what the plutocrats are doing. In the third place, they will cause large expenditures of the people’s money, the return for which will not go into the treasury, but into the hands of a few schemers. In the fourth place, they will call for a large public debt and taxes, and these things especially tend to make men unequal, because any social burdens bear more heavily on the weak than on the strong, and so make the weak weaker and the strong stronger. (u201CConquest of the United States by Spain.u201D) While the influence of private wealth on government was not exactly anything new, 19th-century libertarians tended to think that it had been given a new impetus by the rise of democracy and its inevitable accompaniment, interest-group politics — what the French liberals called u201Culcerous government.u201D A number of libertarians argued that representative democracy leads to a struggle for political influence among competing special-interest groups, and unsurprisingly it is the wealthier and more concentrated interests that tend to win out. Sumner, for example, maintained that democracy, far from being, as is usually supposed, the archenemy of plutocracy, is actually plutocracy’s crucial enabler:

The methods and machinery of democratic, republican self-government — caucuses, primaries, committees, and conventions — lend themselves perhaps more easily than other political methods and machinery to the uses of selfish cliques which seek political influence for interested purposes. (Sumner, u201CAndrew Jacksonu201D) [On this topic I highly recommend Scott Trask’s article u201CWilliam Graham Sumner: Against Democracy, Plutocracy, and Imperialismu201D in the Fall 2004 issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies.]

But on this point writers like Sumner were simply developing the implications of James Madison’s remark in the Federalist that the extreme mutability to which representative governments are liable is likely to work to the benefit of a wealthy minority:

It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. … Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the FEW, not for the MANY. (Federalist 62.) And Madison in his turn was drawing on the ancient Athenian argument that electoral systems are actually oligarchic rather than democratic. (See my u201CThe Athenian Constitution: Government by Jury and Referendum.u201D)

While both libertarians and Marxists complained of the power of wealthy elites, they disagreed on the remedy, because they disagreed on the origin of the problem. For the Marxists, plutocracy was a product of the market; the ruling class emerged through commerce, and only subsequently seized control of the state in order to consolidate its already established hegemony. (Marx himself was ambivalent on this question, but Engels solidified the orthodox Marxist position.) Hence for the Marxists it was the market that needed to be suppressed; this is the origin of the left-wing view that fascism is simply a manifestation of free-market u201Ccapitalism.u201D For the libertarians, by contrast, a ruling class depends for its power on the power of the state, and so it is the latter that needs to be suppressed.

The libertarians did not, however, make the mistake of supposing that state power by itself was the sole problem. Since rulers are generally outnumbered by those they rule, these thinkers saw that state power itself cannot survive except through popular acceptance, which the state lacks the power to compel. In Spencer’s words, u201CIn the case of a government representing a dominant class …. [t]he very existence of a class monopolizing all power, is due to certain sentiments in the commonalty.u201D (u201CThe Social Organism.u201D) Likewise Dunoyer writes:

The first mistake, and to my mind the most serious, is not sufficiently seeing difficulties where they are — not recognising them except in governments. Since it is indeed there that the greatest obstacles ordinarily make themselves felt, it is assumed that that is where they exist, and that alone is where one endeavours to attack them. … One is unwilling to see that nations are the material from which governments are made; that it is from their bosom that governments emerge …. (Industry and Morals.) Or again as American anarchist Edwin Walker pointedly asked: if statism were the cause of all social evil, what on earth could be the cause of statism? (Communism and Conscience.)

19th-century libertarians, then, tended to be u201Cradicalu201D or u201Cdialecticalu201D thinkers in Chris Sciabarra’s sense; they viewed state power as part of an interlocking system of mutually reinforcing social practices and structures, and were intensely interested in the institutional and cultural accompaniments of statism — accompaniments which both drew support from and provided support to the power of the state.

It is in their analysis of these accompaniments that we see them grappling with the specifically fascist aspects of statist culture. Writers like Dunoyer, Spencer, and Molinari saw a close connection between statism and militarism because in their view the state originated in war; tribes that succeeded in fending off invaders became increasingly dependent on their warrior class, while tribes that failed to fend off invaders become the subjects of the enemy tribe’s warrior class — and in either the case the warrior class was thereby positioned to become a ruling class. Dunoyer and Spencer also saw a reciprocal relationship between statism and militarism on the one hand and patriarchy on the other, since they regarded the rule of men over women as the original class division from which all later ones grew. They would thus not have been surprised to see fascist movements glorifying military conquest on the one hand and the patriarchal family on the other.

They would also not have been surprised to notice that fascism takes its name from the fasces, the Roman symbol of an axe in a bundle of rods. (A bundle of rods by itself indicated that an official had the power to inflict corporal punishment; adding an axe to the bundle of rods implied the power to inflict death as well.) Bastiat regarded the prevailing reverence for ancient Rome as a pernicious cultural influence. He wrote:

What was [Roman] patriotism? Hatred of foreigners, the destruction of all civilization, the stifling of all progress, the scourging of the world with fire and sword, the chaining of women, children, and old men to triumphal chariots — this was glory, this was virtue. … The lesson has not been lost; and it is from Rome undoubtedly that this adage comes to us … one nation’s loss is another nation’s gain — an adage that still governs the world. To acquire an idea of Roman morality, imagine in the heart of Paris an organization of men who hate to work, determined to satisfy their wants by deceit and force, and consequently at war with society. Doubtless a certain moral code and even some solid virtues will soon manifest themselves in such an organization. Courage, perseverance, self-control, prudence, discipline, constancy in misfortune, deep secrecy, punctilio, devotion to the community — such undoubtedly will be the virtues that necessity and prevailing opinion would develop among these brigands; such were those of the buccaneers; such were those of the Romans. It may be said that, in regard to the latter, the grandeur of their enterprise and the immensity of their success has thrown so glorious a veil over their crimes as to transform them into virtues. And this is precisely why that school is so pernicious. It is not abject vice, it is vice crowned with splendor, that seduces men’s souls. (u201CAcademic Degrees and Socialism.u201D) Rome, incidentally, was another culture in which plutocracy triumphed by adopting a democratic guise.

Spencer was convinced that Western culture in his day was entering a retrograde phase, a phase he called u201Cre-barbarization,u201D in which the values of industrial society, the society of voluntary cooperation and mutual benefit, were yielding once more to the older values of militant society, of hierarchy, regimentation, aggressive impulses, anti-intellectuality, and a zero-sum view of human existence. Spencer saw evidence of re-barbarization not only in official military policy but also in cultural developments, as for example in the increasing militarization of the church, or the recrudescence of what he called the u201Creligion of enmity.u201D (Principles of Sociology.) Spencer was distressed to observe that in u201Cthe Church-services held on the occasion of the departure of troops for South Africa [he was writing of the Boer War] …. certain hymns are used in a manner which substitutes for the spiritual enemy the human enemy. Thus for a generation past, under cover of the forms of a religion which preaches peace, love, and forgiveness, there has been a perpetual shouting of the words u2018war’ and u2018blood,’ u2018fire’ and u2018battle,’ and a continual exercise of the antagonistic feelings.u201D (Facts and Comments, ch. 25.)

Another cultural development that Spencer identified as a symptom of re-barbarization was the rise of professional sports. In Spencer’s words:

Naturally along with … exaltation of brute force in its armed form … showing how widely the trait of coerciveness, which is the essential element in militancy, has pervaded the nation, there has gone a cultivation of skilled physical force under the form of athleticism. The word is quite modern, for the reason that a generation ago the facts to be embraced under it were not sufficiently numerous and conspicuous to call for it. In my early days u201Csports,u201D so called, were almost exclusively represented by one weekly paper, Bell’s Life in London, found I am told in the haunts of rowdies and in taverns of a low class. Since then, the growth has been such that the acquirement of skill in leading games has become an absorbing occupation. … Meanwhile, to satisfy the demand journalism has been developing, so that besides sundry daily and weekly papers devoted wholly to sports, the ordinary daily and weekly papers give reports of u201Ceventsu201D in all localities, and not unfrequently a daily paper has a whole page occupied with them. …. While bodily superiority is coming to the front, mental superiority is retreating into the background. … Thus various changes point back to those mediaeval days when courage and bodily power were the sole qualifications of the ruling classes, while such culture as existed was confined to priests and the inmates of monasteries. (Facts and Comments, ch. 25.) I suspect Spencer would not enjoy chanting u201CWar Eagle!u201D in the Auburn stadium.

Such symptoms of militarization and barbarization in the arena of culture proceeded in tandem with analogous changes in government, including a shift in power from civilian to military authority, and within the civilian government from parliamentary to executive authority. In 1881 Spencer referred to the measures then being taken in Germany

for extending, directly and indirectly, the control over popular life. On the one hand there are the laws under which, up to middle of last year [i.e., 1880], 224 socialist societies have been closed, 180 periodicals suppressed, 317 books, &c., forbidden …. On the other hand may be named Prince Bismarck’s scheme for re-establishing guilds (bodies which by their regulations coerce their members), and his scheme of State-insurance …. In all which changes we see progress towards … the replacing of civil organization by military organization, towards the strengthening of restraints over the individual and regulation of his life in greater detail. (Principles of Sociology V. 17.) And Spencer saw England beginning to follow in Germany’s footsteps; he noted with alarm u201Ca manifest extension of the militant spirit and discipline among the police, who, wearing helmet-shaped hats, beginning to carry revolvers, and looking upon themselves as half soldiers, have come to speak of the people as u2018civilians’,u201D and he objected to the u201Cincreasing assimilation of the volunteer forces to the regular army, now going to the extent of proposing to make them available abroad, so that instead of defensive action for which they were created, they can be used for offensive action.u201D (Ibid.)

A few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Voltairine de Cleyre noted analogous developments in America:

Our fathers thought they had guarded against a standing army by providing for the voluntary militia. In our day we have lived to see this militia declared part of the regular military force of the United States, and subject to the same demands as the regulars. Within another generation we shall probably see its members in the regular pay of the general government. (u201CAnarchism and American Traditions.u201D) At the time of the Spanish-American War, Sumner was writing of the u201CConquest of the United States by Spain,u201D meaning that the United States, while victorious over Spain on the battlefield, was succumbing ideologically to the imperialist ideas that Spain had traditionally represented. And E. L. Godkin, the editor of The Nation — at that time a classical liberal periodical — wrote despairingly in 1900 of the u201CEclipse of Liberalismu201D:

Nationalism in the sense of national greed [he wrote] has supplanted Liberalism. …. By making the aggrandizement of a particular nation a higher end than the welfare of mankind, it has sophisticated the moral sense of Christendom. … We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors. The old fallacy of divine right has once more asserted its ruinous power, and before it is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale. At home all criticism on the foreign policy of our rulers is denounced as unpatriotic. They must not be changed, for the national policy must be continuous. Abroad, the rulers of every country must hasten to every scene of international plunder, that they may secure their share. To succeed in these predatory expeditions the restraints on parliamentary … government must be cast aside. (u201CThe Eclipse of Liberalism.u201D) In short, the 19th-century libertarians observed the rise of the various tendencies that would come together to make fascism — militarism, corporatism, regimentation, nationalist chauvinism, plutocracy in populist guise, the call for u201Cstrong leadersu201D and u201Cnational greatness,u201D the glorification of conflict over commerce and of brute force over intellect — and they bitterly opposed the whole package. And although they ultimately lost that battle, their fallen banner is ours to pick up.

Let me give Sumner the last word; he’s writing once again of the Spanish-American War:

[T]he reason why liberty, of which we Americans talk so much, is a good thing is that it means leaving people to live out their own lives in their own way, while we do the same. If we believe in liberty, as an American principle, why do we not stand by it? Why are we going to throw it away to enter upon a Spanish policy of dominion and regulation? … [T]his scheme of a republic which our fathers formed was a glorious dream which demands more than a word of respect and affection before it passes away. … Their idea was that they would never allow any of the social and political abuses of the old world to grow up here. … There were to be no armies except a militia, which would have no functions but those of police. They would have no court and no pomp; no orders, or ribbons, or decorations, or titles. They would have no public debt. … There was to be no grand diplomacy, because they intended to mind their own business and not be involved in any of the intrigues to which European statesmen were accustomed. There was to be no balance of power and no u201Creason of stateu201D to cost the life and happiness of citizens. … Our fathers would have an economical government, even if grand people called it a parsimonious one, and taxes should be no greater than were absolutely necessary to pay for such a government. The citizen was to keep all the rest of his earnings and use them as he thought best for the happiness of himself and his family; he was, above all, to be insured peace and quiet while he pursued his honest industry and obeyed the laws. No adventurous policies of conquest or ambition … would ever be undertaken by a free democratic republic. Therefore the citizen here would never be forced to leave his family or to give his sons to shed blood for glory and to leave widows and orphans in misery for nothing. … It is by virtue of these ideals that we have been u201Cisolated,u201D isolated in a position which the other nations of the earth have observed in silent envy; and yet there are people who are boasting of their patriotism, because they say that we have taken our place now amongst the nations of the earth by virtue of this war. (u201CConquest of the United States by Spain.u201D)

This speech was delivered at the Mises Institute‘s conference on The Economics of Fascism.